Take a breath: New law requires ignition interlock for DUI offenders

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2008

Editor's note: This is the final part in a three-part series looking at impaired driving on the Kenai Peninsula.

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Soldotna police officer David Bower is pictured through goggles his department uses to help people understand how alcohol impairs their abilities. According to the company that makes the goggles, this scene is how someone with twice the legal blood alcohol limit would view Bower and his patrol car.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that driving under the influence is against the law. It's as well known a fact as is that Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States. But what happens to those convicted of driving while intoxicated can vary.

Come Jan. 1, a new law passed will ensure one constant for all convicted of driving under the influence in the state of Alaska: ignition interlocks.

"A court may not enforce a municipal ordinance prescribing a penalty for driving while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage, inhalant or controlled substance or refusal to submit to a chemical test unless that ordinance imposes ignition interlock device requirements under this title," the law reads.

"An ignition interlock device analyzes a person's blood alcohol content," said Rep. Kevin Meyer in a written statement.

A vehicle equipped with an ignition interlock won't start unless the driver provides a breath sample below the legal limit, said Babette Miller, owner of Smart Start of Alaska, a company that installs ignition interlock devices statewide. If the breath sample provided is above the legal limit, the car won't start.

"Individuals learn to separate drinking from driving," Miller said.

Once the car has started, it then goes into a retest mode where the device has random tests while the vehicle is running, Miller said. If the person fails to pass the retest, the horn sounds until the person shuts down the vehicle or passes the test. This function is to bring attention to the vehicle that something is wrong, Miller said.

Meyer, who sponsored the law, said the new law will shift emphasis from where someone can drive, as the current limited driver's license does, to how they can drive. An ignition interlock limited license requires the offender to install and maintain the device in their vehicle.

"The license allows the offender to drive only the vehicle on which the device is installed," Meyer said.

Under the new law, someone with an ignition interlock limited license may not drive another vehicle without the device. Driving a vehicle without an ignition interlock will be considered the same as driving with a revoked license and the vehicle could be forfeited to the state, Meyer said.

If the person has not been previously convicted of a DUI, they will receive a minimum of a 12-month probation period during which they will be required to use an ignition interlock. For those with prior convictions, the probation period increases: those with one prior will have the device for a minimum of 24 months; those with two priors will have it for 36 months; and so on.

Miller said another important function of the ignition interlock is to educate offenders about residual alcohol. She said most don't realize that they can still be intoxicated the morning after a night of drinking.

"They're really informative," she said.

The device can be installed in about an hour and a half, Miller said. During that time, a 10- to 15-minute instructional video is shown about the device. The device costs between $100 and $150 to install, plus a monthly lease of $125, Miller said.

According to Meyer, other states that have instituted similar ignition interlock laws have seen a decrease in DUIs, especially among repeat offenders.

"More importantly, an ignition interlock device prevents an intoxicated person from starting their car and thereby keeps a potential drunk driver off the road."

Fatal vision: Goggles simulate intoxication

Four years ago, the Soldotna Police Department added a new element to its annual Drug Abuse Resistance Education classes taught at local schools -- fatal vision goggles, which simulate what it feels like to be intoxicated.

On Thursday, this reporter and Clarion photographer Scott Moon were given the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a go-kart while wearing goggles that simulated twice the legal limit of alcohol.

Two sets of cones where set up in an empty lot, the goal being to maneuver the go-kart between the cones without hitting them.

The goggles really hampered my depth perception. The faster I went, the more difficult driving became.

Being in a safe environment, the driving was difficult enough; I couldn't imagine what it would be like driving on an actual road with other roadway traffic.

Soldotna Police officers Tony Garcia and David Bower then put Scott through some field sobriety tests while wearing the goggles.

Simple tasks such as standing on one foot and walking a straight line were made extremely difficult. It's a terrible example, though an appropriate one, but Scott looked like he was intoxicated as he attempted to walk heal-to-toe in a straight line.

Garcia said education with the fatal vision goggles begins in fifth grade. He said even at that age students can decide not to drink and drive.

"Our goal is to prevent kids from drinking and driving," he said.

SPD travels throughout the school district and sets up driving courses using the go-kart at the middle schools and high schools. Garcia said the go-kart is a useful tool because it engages the students.

"Only through education are we going to change people's behavior," Garcia said.

The go-kart was donated a couple of years ago to the SPD by Alaska Cab owner Brent Hibbert. He said it's important to educate kids so they don't make bad decisions in the future.

"I don't want to see anybody getting hurt," he said. "Find a designated driver for sure."

Mike Nesper can be reached at mike.nesper@peninsulaclarion.com.

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