Some 28,000 Washington drivers, all convicted of driving under the influence, aren't supposed to start their cars without first breathing...

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Some 28,000 Washington drivers, all convicted of driving under the influence, aren’t supposed to start their cars without first breathing into an alcohol-detection device.

Yet just over 4,400 ignition-interlock devices have been installed on cars in the state, said Brad Benfield, state Department of Licensing (DOL) spokesman.

The gap illustrates a frustrating hole in the system: No public agency confirms the device is installed once the court or DOL orders it. In addition, when the devices are installed, drivers find ways to cheat them, officials say.

While it is possible many offenders ordered to use the devices stopped driving, many simply ignore the order, state and local officials say.

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“There is no way to check it,” said Amy Freedheim, senior King County deputy prosecuting attorney. She has prosecuted hundreds of drunken-driving cases and for seven years has headed the felony DUI unit.

“Some people blatantly disregard the order; some people say they can’t afford them,” she said. “You don’t know if they’re on the car unless they get caught.”

Freedheim, the lone prosecutor assigned full time to prosecute DUI deaths, has a wall in her office filled with photographs of drunken-driving victims involved in cases she’s prosecuted.

How interlocks work

Ignition-interlock devices are cellphone-size boxes connected to the ignition and fitted with a mouthpiece. The driver blows into the mouthpiece. If the interlock detects alcohol, the car won’t start. The test takes about five seconds. Courts can order drivers to have the interlocks installed for a period of one to 10 years. The interlock records the time, date and test results every time the car is started and asks for a retest every 10 to 30 minutes. The retest can be done while driving. The devices are typically rented for $50 to $70 per month.

“For me, it’s inspiring,” she said. “It’s why I do the job.”

While a national push is under way to order the devices for first-time offenders, Washington has required ignition interlocks since 2004.

First-time offenders in the state ordered to have ignition interlocks must show proof the devices were installed in order to get their suspended driver’s licenses reinstated. But clearly “the bulk of those people haven’t come in to get a license,” Benfield said.

When interlock offenders are caught, it is mostly through stops for other offenses, Freedheim said. The State Patrol said it does not track how many tickets are written for interlock violations. A violation is a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Those caught driving with a suspended license face the same penalty.

Judy Groezinger, DOL assistant administrator for driver responsibility, said the state agency “is not required to keep tabs on whether it is installed or not installed.”

Licensed installers do keep records of drivers who come in for installations, which are then reported to the DOL.

In November, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) announced a nationwide effort to require ignition-interlock devices for all people convicted of DUI, and to push for technology that would eventually put sensors in all cars.

The MADD initiative doesn’t say how states would make sure installation is enforced, nor does it mention ways to prevent cheating.

Devices aren’t foolproof

The Governors Highway Safety Association and MADD estimate about 100,000 interlocks are in use nationally, while about 1.4 million DUI convictions are recorded annually nationwide.

The interlocks work by requiring the driver to blow into a testing device before starting a car. If the driver has been drinking, the device prevents the vehicle from starting.

But even when installed, the devices aren’t foolproof.

People try to bypass the interlocks by borrowing or buying other cars. Some have a sober friend or even a child breathe into the device, though a retest feature every few minutes can defeat that ploy, according to court officials, police and interlock installers.

Most manufacturers take steps to try to counteract such shortcuts.

Interlocks are supposed to include cheat-proof features, such as a “hum tone” where the driver is required to make a humming sound to activate the interlock. The intent is to make it impossible to start the car with something like air from a balloon.

The State Patrol doesn’t prescribe any particular technology to prevent cheating but says federal law requires some technology to prevent tampering and circumvention.

A check of seven providers certified by the State Patrol to install interlocks showed varying methods are used to comply, including a suck test that requires a person to blow into the device and then suck air back out, as well as a temperature sensor to detect a person’s body heat.

One company said it has no such standard because it has concluded that people who are determined to circumvent the devices will do so.

“You could be drunk as a skunk and have your child blow into it,” said Amari Rooney, an administrator at the Lakewood branch of Alco-Lock.

One installation company, Smart Start of Washington, contacted the State Patrol to report some installers are disabling the hum-tone feature. But no incidents were verified, according to the Patrol.

Results reported

Proponents of the devices believe they cut down on drunken-driving deaths.

New Mexico, which began a year ago to require ignition interlocks after a first conviction, has reported a 12 percent drop in alcohol-related drunken-driving fatalities. Maryland, which passed a similar law in 1996, reported a 17.8 percent drop.

Washington state’s DUI fatality numbers dropped from 310 in 1998 to a low of 235 in 2004 but rose to 288 in 2005, according to the state Traffic Safety Commission.

Law-enforcement officials say other factors could influence drops in DUI-related deaths, including more DUI patrols, safer cars and improved emergency care.

Part of the New Mexico approach includes having special interlock-enforcement units, said S.U. Mahesh of the New Mexico Department of Transportation. In one of the state’s most populous counties, six officers are assigned to monitor interlock installations.

No one is advocating stronger interlock-enforcement steps in this state. And Freedheim said there aren’t enough police officers in the state to arrest fugitives wanted on outstanding warrants, let alone to check vehicles for interlocks.

A new report by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission on state impaired-driving laws makes several recommendations for improving DUI laws but does not specifically discuss interlock use.

Origin of interlocks

The push for interlocks in Washington began in 1997 at the urging of legislators and Keith Johnsen, whose wife, Mary, was struck and killed on the Sammamish Plateau that year. The driver, Susan L. West, registered a 0.34 percent blood-alcohol level. Drivers in Washington state are considered intoxicated if their blood alcohol is 0.08 or higher.

West was convicted of vehicular homicide and served six years in prison. She was arrested again last summer in Bellevue on a DUI charge. She pleaded guilty and received a jail sentence.

The West case and others have left people frustrated and searching for solutions.

“My dream is to have a system where a card slips in the dashboard,” said Groezinger of the DOL. The system would check everything, including whether someone had insurance and a license, whether the car was stolen — and whether the person had been drinking, she said.

Freedheim, of the prosecutor’s office, said the idea is intriguing, but for now catching the drivers who forgo the ignition interlocks remains a problem.

And always on her mind are the victims.

“I never get to meet them,” she said. “I want them and their families to know they didn’t die in vain.”

Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@seattletimes

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