Ignition interlocks don’t always make the roads safer. In fact, sometimes they kill.
On Jan. 22 Joseph A. DeGrasse, 29, was driving his car towards East Wenatchee on Highway 28. He DUI convictions in his past so he was required by law to drive a car only if it had a functioning ignition interlock device. Near Kirby Billingsley Hydro Park, DeGrasse’s ignition interlock device signaled that he needed to “blow.” If he didn’t, depending on the type of device he had, his horn and lights would start flashing and he might be reported to court on a probation violation. When DeGrasse reached down to grab the device he veered onto the shoulder. On the shoulder was a broken down, empty bus. DeGrasse collided with it and his passenger was killed instantly.
As a DUI defense lawyer I do see the benefits of ignition interlock devices and restricted licenses that allow drivers, who would otherwise be suspended, to legally drive so long as they have the device. Before such laws were in effect many people would lose their jobs or drop out of school because they didn’t have a license and couldn’t drive. Other people would break the law and just drive anyway. Some of those people might have driven drunk. And since they were already breaking the law, they often wouldn’t buy insurance. Finding a way to let people continue to drive but protect the public was certainly a good idea.
Undoubtedly ignition interlocks have prevented some people who are drunk from driving their car. And that’s a good thing. My complaint is not with the entire law. My complaint is with the law that requires “rolling retests.” By Washington law ignition interlocks not only require a driver to blow to start the car, but also to periodically blow again while the car is running. Presumably this is to prevent someone else blowing in the device to help a drunk get his car started or to prevent the driver from drinking in the car once the car has started. But the result is that drivers like DeGrasse end up fumbling around trying to blow at 60 mph and kill people. We have laws in place that prohibit drivers from talking on a cell phone or texting while driving. These laws were passed after studies suggested that talking on a cell phone and driving was comparable to driving drunk. It makes perfect sense. Dividing a driver’s attention, whether it be to eat a cheeseburger, put on make-up or talk on a cell phone, is bound to increase accidents. Yet despite knowing that to be true, we currently force some of our state’s worst drivers (those who previously made a bad decision to drink and drive) to periodically attempt the complex task of blowing in a hand-held device while they drive.
The fix is pretty easy. By removing the rolling retest the problem is solved. Sure, there will occasionally be a person who cheats the system, but doing so is a separate crime, and then they’d be driving while drunk again, which of course is a crime too. A lesser solution is to decrease the frequency of the retests, increase the amount of time after the signal the person has to blow, and require the car be in park. Had any one of these changes been in place DeGrasse’s passenger would almost certainly be alive today.
The Legislature directed the State Patrol to develop all the standards for the ignition interlock device program. The State Patrol decided to require a retest after 10 minutes and again every 10 to 45 minutes, and to allow such tests while the vehicle is in motion. The State Patrol should reevaluate these standards. If the goal of ignition interlocks is to save lives then changes to the law have to be made.
John Brangwin is an attorney and partner in the Wenatchee law firm of Woods & Brangwin. DeGrasse pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and will be sentenced on June 20. He faces 26 to 34 months in prison.