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Data Shows Ignition Interlocks Causing Distracted Driving Accidents

A male driver is blowing into an ignition interlock system which checks his alcohol concentration before allowing the vehicle to be started. Ignition interlock devices may be an alternative sentence for drunk driving or a probation requirement for those who have received a DUI.
By Andrew Leonatti | Last updated on

During the last decade, all 50 states adopted some form of ignition interlock law as part of their drunk driving sentencing laws. Ignition interlocks are portable breath-testing devices that a driver must blow into before the car can start. Many models also require drivers to continue to blow into them as they are driving.

They are immensely popular in the law enforcement community because statistics show that they work. According to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, interlock installations have reduced drunk driving fatalities by 15%.

But those additional checks while driving come with a grim side effect: They are causing distracted driving accidents, some of which have been fatal.

Trading One Type of Accident for Another?

According to the New York Times, which reviewed crash data and lawsuits from across the country, recurring breath tests on interlock devices have contributed to dozens of accidents across the country.

In one Texas case, a driver, who had just passed a test, accidentally dropped his interlock to the floor under his feet. While fumbling around for the device, nervous that he would miss and fail the next test, he struck another car, killing the driver.

In a case in California, a man crossed the center line while attempting to perform a test. He struck an oncoming vehicle, killing the passenger. Other drivers have injured themselves while performing tests.

No Comparison, Say Anti-Drunk Driving Advocates

All the way back in 2010, the National High Traffic Safety Administration stated that the agency "does not intend" for drivers to perform the tests while driving, recommending that drivers pull over. But according to the Times report, the industry successfully resisted making that mandatory, arguing it was impractical.

The interlock industry, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and other safety advocates, however, argue that interlock devices prevent far more accidents than they cause.

And while the data does show that ignition interlock devices play a valuable role in keeping drunk driving offenders from re-offending, that is cold comfort to those injured in these accidents.

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