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Colorado Ignition Interlocks and the Value of Judicial Discretion

The justice system generally works best when judges are empowered to apply the law to the facts of particular cases.

Consider, for example, Colorado's experience with requiring an ignition interlock device after certain drunk driving convictions. Since 2008, Colorado judges have had discretion to order these devices to be installed - and fatal accidents involving alcohol have decreased.

This does not mean, however, that it makes sense for the federal government to force states to make ignition interlock devices mandatory in all cases.

Breath-Test Proposal in Congress

An ignition interlock is a breath-test device that prevents a car from starting if the test indicates that the would-be driver's blood alcohol content (BAC) is above the legal limit. Under a proposal in Congress, states would be eligible to receive up to $25 million each per year in federal safety grants by making ignition interlocks mandatory after all DUI convictions.

Critics of the proposal, including the American Beverage Institute, question how effective it would really be at promoting safety. They argue that drivers with BACs far over the legal limit of .08 cause most fatal drunk driving accidents.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration appear to support this argument. According to NHTSA statistics, only six percent of fatal crashes in 2009 involved a driver whose BAC was between 0.01 and 0.07.

In other words, it isn't social drinkers who've merely had one too many who tend to be killers on the road. Resources to prevent drunk driving could be more effectively applied to high-BAC and repeat DUI offenders.

Colorado Ignition Interlock Law

Some supporters of the proposed bill in Congress point to Colorado as an example of how requiring ignition interlocks can decrease the number of fatal alcohol-related accidents.

It's true that those accidents have decreased from 176 to 127 per year since 2008, when the Colorado legislature gave judges the authority to require ignition interlock devices for those convicted of drunk driving. Judges have clearly been proactive about using this authority. Colorado has about 17,000 of the devices in place, the second most in the country.

But it does not follow that requiring ignition interlock devices for all drivers in states will improve safety. In an era of scarce government resources, a one-size-fits-all approach that applies as much to first-time, low-BAC offenders as to repeat or high-BAC offenders is a questionable use of resources.

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