Tale of the tube: Ignition interlock law awaits Hawaii’s drunk drivers

MADD reminds everyone to stay safe as the holidays and excuses approach

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—In a few weeks, grownups will have license to put on a fantasy and dial down their inhibitions, if only for an evening. Halloween seems to be the unofficial start of the alcohol season. People will party, gather for drinks, and some will get royally hammered using the holidays, a big game, a need to have fun as a reason to—although an average weekend can also provide that same excuse for others. In the more immediate future, this weekend, the Hawaii chapter of the organization that lobbies to keep motorists from drinking and driving—Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)—will fundraise at an event where alcohol will be present. So much for the criticism that the organization maintains a prohibitionist attitude toward alcohol.

The MADD event is sold out and perhaps the most notable facet of its success is that the price of a ticket also includes the cab ride to and from the Honolulu soiree. No one will have the opportunity to drive impaired. Moreover, the group exercise in responsible adult behavior will be good practice for those wanting to avoid the possibility of being arrested for driving under the influence and then having to face Hawaii’s new ignition interlock law, which goes into effect on January 1.

The interlock is a device attached to the ignition of a car. It has a tube the driver must blow into before the vehicle will start. The machine analyzes and records the driver’s blood alcohol level and, depending on the analysis, the device either allows or prevents the engine from turning over. While not failsafe, an interlock isn’t easy to fool—the driver must use and repeat a somewhat unique breath pattern and there is a camera connected to the device recording who is puffing into the tube. There has been controversy about the .02% threshold of blood alcohol the device is programmed to record which is below the nationally accepted intoxication rate of .08%. Another criticism is that the interlock can register false positives by making mistakes based on what the driver has consumed, even mouthwash, similar to the way certain foods (poppy seeds for example) can mimic the presence of marijuana in urine.

The cost to install the device is in the range of $70 to $150, plus there is a monthly fee of $60 to $80 for monitoring. The DUI driver is expected to bear all costs and there have been charges that this discriminates against those who cannot afford it. In Hawaii, according to the Hawaii.gov website, the interlock company will provide the device at a reduced cost for indigent offenders.

Since late 2006, MADD has promoted a national campaign to put an interlock law on the books of all states. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which bills itself as “an independent, nonprofit, scientific, and educational organization” funded by auto insurers, over half of all U.S. states “require DUI offenders to install ignition interlocks on their vehicles in order to drive during a license suspension and/or require interlocks for specified time periods before fully relicensing offenders.” In 13 states including Hawaii, the restriction applies to all offenders, including first timers. Alabama, South Dakota, and Vermont are the only states to not have interlock laws.

Carol McNamee, founder of Hawaii’s MADD chapter in 1984, serves as Vice Chairman of the Hawaii Ignition Interlock Implementation Task Force established in 2007 by the State Legislature. In 1996, she was elected to the National Board of MADD and served for seven years, three as the National Vice President for Public Policy and two as Chairman of the Programs Committee overseeing national efforts to prevent underage drinking. McNamee says that Hawaii law enforcement arrests between 6000 and 6500 people for DUI each year. And while she is pleased that some impaired drivers are off the road, she’s not ready to cheer yet.

“We did reach a point where we saw a 50 percent decline in fatalities, but in the last few years, that’s gone up a bit; 2006 was a terrible year in Hawaii,” McNamee says. In subsequent years, the fatality rate went down then up again. “We’re at a plateau in Hawaii at about 51 fatalities each year, and that’s still 51 too many.”

On TV, the latest round of law enforcement commercials is in rotation and includes one showing a driver in a presumably beer filled car being asked by the officer is he has had anything to drink. There are a several more equally visually compelling spots, but the campaign’s efficacy and the attention of the target audience appears to be limited.

“The major age group that we look at is usually in their 30s to 50s,” says psychiatry professor Jim De Marco, the Academic Fellow in Addiction Medicine at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. “These commercials bring an awareness, but it’s temporary” largely because the audience doesn’t identify with the people shown in the commercials. “They think, ‘I’m not like that.’ We need to change the culture and mentality of ‘you don’t drive drunk’ just like we did with seat belts and that means educating young people that driving while impaired is not acceptable.”

Commercials from distillers, breweries, and alcoholic drink companies flash the inherent challenge: We see beautiful people holding frosty beers, happy, smiling people raising glasses of wine, a very sexy bartender drinking in the equally sexy patron sipping a premium liquor or mixed drink whose cool condensation viewers can almost feel. It’s far from an easy sell to simply lob in a tag at the end of the spot to “drink responsibly” and expect it to stick.  McNamee says it’s the mixed messages that are a big part of the problem.

“Alcohol doesn’t work well for anyone operating a dangerous machine.”

De Marco agrees but says the messaging is the misunderstanding of the real issue: immature brain development. “The frontal lobe isn’t finished being built until you’re 25—this is why they won’t rent you a car—you’re area of judgment isn’t developed until that time.”

How can car rental companies be on par with brain research and beyond social practice? Perhaps it’s an aversion to corporate liability. Meanwhile in other sectors of society, an 18-year-old can be handed a gun and sent to war or allowed to vote, but can’t legally drink until four years later when her seat of judgment still is four years away from full maturation. De Marco just shakes his head.

People have been drinking since they first figured out how to produce mead sometime around 7000 BC. Drunken revelry may be an intrinsic element of many an epic tale or personal history, but we know more now and society has to catch up. De Marco says the good news is that we are. Even on college campuses, getting blitzed on the weekends is no longer viewed as desirable or okay, regardless of whether drunk driving is also involved.

Drinking is personal choice and no one, not MADD or De Marco, is suggesting that society stop producing and consuming alcohol. It’s fine to drink to celebrate, to commiserate, be sociable or take the edge off ... if we also take the necessary precautions: take cabs, select a designated driver, adhere to the plan, and let kids see that we’re doing this. At the very core of the argument is the understanding that drinking is participating in a cultural practice that should be reserved for adults-only.

“There is definitely a genetic connection between addiction and the genes that are expressed, but the gene doesn’t have to express itself,” De Marco warns. “There are environmental factors that make a difference. We do know that if you drink alcohol or are exposed to drugs before the age of 15, there is a fourfold increase in the incidence of alcoholism and addiction.”

While true alcoholics represent a small percentage of people who drink, when it comes to impaired driving, De Marco says that’s universal: “Alcohol doesn’t work well for anyone operating a dangerous machine.”

With transdermal and infrared technology already in trials, there will be more sensitive devices on the market in coming years to prevent an impaired driver from getting behind the wheel. For the moment, the most commercially available technology is the ignition interlock and Hawaii drivers with valid licenses who are arrested for DUI will have to have cope with blowing in the tube. Until the societal ethos of not drinking and driving becomes the accepted norm, De Marco and McNamee say the interlock law is the most effective way start to reform DUI drivers, though the real beginning will be in educating young children how never to become one in the first place.

The full interview with Jim De Marco and Carol McNamee is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org. Reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]