Indiana lawmakers consider ignition interlock devices

Indiana's House Judiciary Committee heard emotional testimony about the high cost of drunk driving.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Drunk drivers killed 230 Hoosiers last year. Grieving families say it's now time Indiana takes a tougher stand against drunk driving. But are lawmakers listening?

Indianapolis - On Tuesday morning, Indiana's House Judiciary Committee heard emotional testimony about the high cost of drunk driving.

A teenager from West Lafayette told lawmakers about losing two of her best friends in two separate drunk driving crashes.

"After the first one, I thought, 'This can't happen again,'" testified Adriana Giuliani of West Lafayette. "Then three months ago I lost another incredible friend, Katie Baker, who was also hit by a repeat drunk driver."

Tom Bjornstad described the crash that left his 17-year-old daughter, Aimee, with permanent brain injuries.

"It's a nightmare that never ends," he told lawmakers in a tightly-packed committee room. "And the man who hit my daughter, if he had an interlock device, I'd probably still have a normal daughter."

Ignition interlock devices are the focus of three bills now pending in the Indiana General Assembly. All of the legislation was introduced following an Eyewitness News investigation showing that, unlike many other states, Indiana rarely uses ignition interlock devices to help prevent drunk driving crashes and save lives.

Ignition interlock devices are similar to Breathalyzers used by police. Once a device is installed on a car's ignition, the car won't start until the driver blows into the device to prove he is sober. If the device detects any alcohol, the car won't go anywhere.

Rarely used in Indiana

A few judges in Indiana order drunk driving defendants to install ignition interlocks on their cars as part of their sentencing, but it is an optional tool for judge to use in Indiana. Of the more than 20,000 Hoosiers convicted every year of drunk driving, fewer than 300 of those drunk drivers are ordered to install an ignition interlock.

By comparison, states like New Mexico mandate judges to order ignition interlock devices on the vehicles of all drunk drivers. New Mexico has been using mandatory ignition interlock for years and now has the devices in the cars and trucks of more than 7,000 convicted drunk drivers.

Since New Mexico mandated interlock technology, alcohol-related deaths in that state have dropped 22%. In Indiana, drunk driving fatalities increased 13% during the same period.

"I would say ignition interlock was the most crucial piece of public policy that we've brought forward in addressing drunk driving," said Rachel O'Conner, who oversees New Mexico's drunk driving policies.

Unanimous Vote

Tuesday morning, after hearing from victims' friends and families, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved House Bill 1020.

"I'm happy we've got it through committee because it's a step forward," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Cleo Duncan (R - Greensburg).

In its current form, the bill would require judges to mandate ignition interlock devices as a condition of granting probationary driving privileges for any drunk driver who has previously been convicted of Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) within the past ten years. Repeat drunk drivers who do not seek a probationary license would not be required to install an ignition interlock, and those who were convicted of drunk driving more than ten years earlier would not be required to get an interlock device to qualify for probationary privileges. All first-time convicted drivers would be exempt under the bill, which now goes to the full Indiana House for consideration.

The bill is a far cry from the much tougher laws now being used in states like New Mexico, Illinois, Arizona, Nebraska, Washington and Louisiana, where ignition interlock is a mandatory sentencing requirement for all drunk drivers - even those convicted of a first offense.

"It's time we see mandatory ignition interlock for all convicted drunk drivers in Indiana," said Kitty Greene, president of Indiana's Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter. "This is long overdue."

Tougher Bills "Dead"

Two other bills now introduced in the General Assembly would require Indiana judges to order ignition interlock devices on all the vehicles of all convicted offenders. Senate Bill 274, introduced by Senator Randy Head (R-Logansport), would require a mandatory 90-day ignition interlock for convicted drunk drivers, while Rep. Sue Crouch (R-Evansville) proposes a 180-day ignition interlock mandate in her House Bill 1065.

Both bills appear to be dead on arrival. Sources within the legislature tell 13 Investigates that neither bill will receive a hearing because leadership in both houses is hesitant to impose harsh penalties on first-time drunk drivers.

"I don't agree with that perception," said Senator Head. "I think the bill [SB274] is very fair. It's fair to those people who have been convicted of OWI, and it's certainly fair to the people who use the roads and deserve to do so safely."

MADD officials, along with drunk driving victims and their families from around the state, will hold a rally inside the Statehouse rotunda Wednesday morning to ask lawmakers for decisive action. They want state leaders to know ignition interlock has a proven track record and can save many lives.

"The longer we wait, the more lives we put at risk," Greene said.

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