Conflict over drunk driving penalties divide safety advocates

By Bill Holloway

As Congress hashed out the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, one area of heated debate centered on how to effectively reduce drunk driving.

As described in Governing, the debate has focused on whether states should require that everyone convicted of drunk driving—including first-time offenders—install an ignition interlock device in their vehicle. Ignition interlock devices require the driver to blow into a breathalyzer before starting the engine, and prevent drivers from starting their vehicle if they are under the influence of alcohol.

Under MAP-21, a portion of federal highway safety funding was set aside exclusively for the 25 states that require ignition interlock devices for every person convicted of drunk driving. Opponents have argued that these funds should be made available to states with 24/7 sobriety programs for repeat offenders as well. These programs require drunk drivers to stay completely sober at all times, through either twice-daily check-ins—normally with their local sheriff’s office—or through the use of a monitoring bracelet.

Those in favor of expanding eligibility for the safety funding to states with 24-7 sobriety programs say that up to 85 percent of drivers required to install ignition interlock devices fail to do so and that many still drive other vehicles that do not have an interlock installed. 24/7 sobriety programs have become especially popular in large rural states, such as South Dakota and Montana, where distances between large towns make installing and maintaining the devices difficult.

Under FAST Congress opted to make 24/7 sobriety states eligible for a portion of the funding previously reserved for states with ignition interlock requirements, provided that they restrict the driving privileges of anyone convicted of drunk driving. Under existing law, up to 15 percent of impaired driving countermeasures grant funding is reserved for ignition interlock states. The FAST Act will reduce grants available to ignition interlock states to no more than 12 percent of impaired driving countermeasures grant funding, and will set aside up to 3 percent of this funding for states with 24/7 sobriety programs.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.