Virginia ignition interlock laws keep more convicted drunken drivers from reoffending

The in-car Breathalyzer system keeps convicted drunken drivers off the roads

ROANOKE, Va. – It's been five years since a Virginia law was put in place requiring all DUI offenders, including first-time offenders, to have the ignition interlock Breathalyzer system installed in their vehicles.

Now we're getting a closer look at the impact those systems are having on convicted drunken drivers in Virginia.

In states where the ignition interlock system is installed for all DUI offenders, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a 67 percent drop in repeat DUIs. It's leading to a drop in DUI cases we've seen almost immediately in Roanoke since the law was put in place in July 2012.

Roanoke DUI Arrests:
2012-13: 474 arrests
2013-14: 364 arrests
2014-15: 309 arrests
2015-16: 215 arrests
2016-17: 265 arrests

Scott Leamon, the crime prevention specialist for the Roanoke Police Department, says the increase over the last year is likely due to additional officers that have been patrolling for drivers under the influence. In the last year, the department has assigned two additional officers to patrol the areas and time frames where drunken driving has historically been an issue.

"About 10 years ago, per capita Roanoke was one of the worst places for DUIs in the entire Commonwealth," says Leamon. "Now we see what we can do when we step up enforcement and step up education and have businesses like Uber and Lyft come along as well."

In Virginia, the all-offender law isn't just the ignition interlock system, it also includes alcohol treatment and counseling. The Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program (VASAP) found that by pairing the ignition interlock system with treatment, offenders are 32 percent less likely to be arrested for DUI again after the system was removed than those who were only required to use ignition interlock.

In the five years since the all-offender laws were put in place, we've also seen changes in the ignition interlock that makes the system more reliable, like an in-car camera.

When the Breathalyzer system is installed, so is a camera that can take a photo of the entire vehicle. Every time the driver takes a breath test, a photo is taken to ensure the person who is taking the breath test is the same person who's driving the car.

Drivers are required to have the system recalibrated each month and those tests and photos are sorted through. For any attempt to cheat the system or failed breath test, an additional six months are added to the length of time the ignition interlock is required to be installed in the vehicle.

Over the last 10 years, the ignition interlock system has stopped more than 2.3 million drivers across the country with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher from starting their cars and getting on the road.

"The ability to prevent somebody from driving impaired, it's the impact of nationally having 2.3 million less attempts," says Christopher Morris, the special program coordinator with the commission on VASAP. "If you stop one, you could have stopped a fatality or injury or property damage."

Another change is the rolling retests. Those additional tests require drivers to be breathalyzed again one minute after their vehicle is started and randomly timed tests for each hour they're on the road.

If any of those tests are failed or the driver refuses to be breathalyzed again, the ignition interlock system will set off an alarm. The vehicle's headlights will flash and the horn will blast until the driver passes the test or pulls over and turns off their vehicle.

The alarm is a signal that police are trained to look for. As a driver, if you saw someone with their lights flashing and horn honking, even if you didn't know why you'd likely get out of their way. It's a safety feature that can help keep other people out of the way of drunken drivers as well.