Originally in the News & Observer
Editorial, July 1, 2015

North Carolina’s drunken driving laws are pretty tough as they stand, but a proposal led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving is worthy of approval by the General Assembly.

Under the plan, all those convicted of DWI would be required to have ignition interlocks on their cars, even first-time offenders. This is a step that should be taken, and it has bipartisan support among lawmakers. Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh, a Democrat, is a lawyer and moderate who also happens to be known for taking time to contemplate all sides of an issue. He is a co-sponsor of a bill requiring the interlock devices.

As things stand, interlocks are required for drivers who have been convicted of repeat offenses, who refuse to take a blood-alcohol test or who blow a 0.15 on a breath test, which is nearly double the 0.08 threshold that defines drunken driving.

The devices are connected to ignition systems. Drivers have to blow into a tube before starting theirs car, and if their blood alcohol level is above the threshold set for the device on the car, the car won’t start. More than 11,000 drivers in the state have the devices in their vehicles, so ordered by the courts. That seems a disturbing number, indicating that despite awareness campaigns, a vast number of people don’t take drunken driving laws seriously.

That doesn’t indicate just a number of people with alcohol problems, but also too many who don’t have much common sense.

There’s not much wiggle room in criminal courts on DWI charges, which result in the loss of a license, fines and tremendous increases in insurance premiums for several years. It’s just absolutely irresponsible to drive if one knows there’s a chance of a drunken driving arrest.

MADD makes the argument for the interlock law as follows:

First, those convicted of drunken driving often don’t stop driving. Here’s another astonishing statistic: More than 40,000 North Carolinians are convicted each year of driving while their licenses are revoked.

Second, those drivers who have just a single DWI conviction are not really less of a threat than those with repeat convictions. LaRonda Schenck Scott, MADD’s state executive director, cites statistics from the Centers for Disease Control finding that those convicted of DWIs have likely been impaired perhaps 80 times before they ever got caught. “Every time a person may be receiving a first conviction for DWI,” she said, “we know it’s highly unlikely it’s the first time they’ve ever driven impaired.”

But perhaps the most compelling statistic offered by MADD is that drunken-driving deaths have dropped after interlock laws were passed in other states. And this law or something similar is in effect in 26 other states, so North Carolina wouldn’t be blazing new trails here or instituting a law that’s radical in any way.

There must be a move in this direction in other states as well. Otherwise, car makers and safety groups won’t be focused on developing better technology for the interlock devices.

Call it a cliche, but it really is true: If an interlock device prevents one death, then it’s worth it. Those who drive drunk don’t have to, not with all the alternative transportation available and with help provided by many bars and clubs. The decision to drive drunk may be made in haste or certainly in an altered state, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a decision for which those who make it should have to pay.

The state should do everything it can to discourage drunken driving and to keep those convicted of it from moving one centimeter in their automobiles while under the influence. The interlock proposal is a good one and should draw bipartisan support in both houses of the General Assembly.