Still Drunk, Still Driving
Bob Segall/13 Investigates
Across Indiana, a drunk driver causes a crash every forty minutes, and those crashes kill hundreds of Hoosiers each year.
Yet Indiana is not doing what many other states have done to reduce their alcohol-related fatalities and crashes. Dozens of states now require convicted drunk drivers to install ignition interlock devices in their vehicles, and in some of those states, the results have been dramatic.
Ignition interlock devices are wired into a vehicle's ignition, and they require drivers to blow into the device to prove sobriety before their vehicles will start. If the ignition interlock detects any alcohol on a driver's breath, the vehicle is disabled.
Tippecanoe County superior court judge Michael Morrissey is one of the few Indiana judges who uses ignition interlocks. He's ordered them for hundreds of drunk drivers since 2005, and he says in more than 99% of those cases, the offenders did not drive drunk again.
"I like our numbers," Morrissey said. "If you're decreasing re-offense rates, you're protecting the public."
John Mason would have been a good candidate for an ignition interlock device.
Mason, who describes himself as a "professional alcoholic," was arrested for drunk driving in March 2007.
A Marion County judge could have ordered him to get an ignition interlock on his car, but that did not happen. Just a few months later, Mason drove drunk again -- in the same car -- and was involved in a deadly crash that killed Theresa Webb and injured Carolyn Fox.
"I knew I had been driving with alcohol on my breath ... but I never would have guessed a lady would end up dead and another close to it," Mason told WTHR.
Mason is one of more than 20,000 Hoosiers convicted every year of drunk driving, yet fewer than 300 of those drunk drivers are ordered to get an ignition interlock.
Indiana law allows judges to order the installation an ignition interlock, but they are not mandated to do so. Judges in other states do not have a choice. Six states have legislation that requires ignition interlock devices for every case of drunk driving. Twenty other states mandate ignition interlock for some alcohol-related driving offenses.
"If we have the technology out there, why not use it?" asks Dan Towery.
Towery owns an ignition interlock supply company in Lafayette. He wants Indiana judges to order the devices more often, and it's not simply because he's out to make a buck.
"My wife and I witnessed the death of our daughter and her boyfriend to a repeat drunk driver," he explains. "It's something that never leaves you."
Sarah Towery and Chip Smith died when they were hit head-on by a man with four previous arrests for drunk driving. That man, Jeff Trout, had never been ordered to install an ignition interlock.
Since the crash, Sara's father and other ignition interlock marketers have been trying to talk to Indiana judges and lawmakers about the lifesaving benefits of mandating ignition interlock, but they say few state officials are willing to listen.
"Most judges are ignorant of the technology," said Jack Dalton, director of Delaware-based National Interlock Service. "They don't know the successes we've had with it. All you have to do is look around the country to see it's successful."
Perhaps the most powerful proof comes from New Mexico, the first state to mandate ignition interlocks for every drunk driving conviction. New Mexico currently has nearly 7,000 ignition interlock devices installed with impressive results.
Since New Mexico lawmakers first mandated the devices in 2002, drunk driving fatalities in that state have declined 22%. If Indiana mandated ignition interlocks with the same success rate, it would mean 50 to 60 Hoosier lives saved each year. Without the device, alcohol-related deaths in Indiana have increased 5% in the past five years.
"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. She is New Mexico's DWI Czar, a position created by the state's governor to help reduce drunk driving.
O'Conner likes ignition interlock because they're paid for by offenders, not by taxpayers. She also likes the devices' ability to download information about each driver to show which drivers tried to start their vehicles after drinking. New Mexico courts have implemented an extensive ignition interlock monitoring system to report those drivers, who are subject to 48 hours in jail and additional penalties.
And O'Conner says the most important key to the success of ignition interlock in New Mexico is that the device is mandatory for all cases.
"If it's going to work, it needs to be used, even for first-time drunk drivers," she said.
Leslie Hines is one of those drivers.
The Santa Fe, New Mexico, mother has been driving with an ignition interlock since a near-fatal crash in 2004.
"I can't remember how many glasses of wine I had, but my blood alcohol content came out to be .24 which is three times the legal limit," she said.
Hines was driving the wrong way on U.S. 285 when she crashed into two other cars. Hines suffered only minor injuries, but one of her victims suffered massive injuries and was in a coma for weeks.
"I was just in disbelief that anything like that could happen to me," Hines recalls.
Her court-ordered ignition interlock is now a constant reminder of the crash, and even though Hines must blow into the device on every car trip, she feels grateful to have it. "Now it's just part of driving. It's like turning the key or putting on my seatbelt, and it's better than killing someone or yourself in an accident."
"Seventy percent of New Mexico's fatalities are caused by first time (drunk) drivers," says O'Conner. "So having adequate penalties for first-time drunk drivers is incredibly important."
But in Indiana, many first-time drunk drivers face very minor penalties.
That's what happened to Don Templeton on his first conviction. And his second. And when he drove drunk again, he was involved in a crash in Decatur County that killed 21-year-old college student Luke Johnson.
"There really needs to be more consequences for drunk driving for some of these tragedies to be prevented," said Eric Johnson, Luke's father. "Some things need to be changed."
While change is needed, some say ignition interlock is not the answer.
Marion County superior court judge Mark Stoner says ignition interlocks do not prevent a convicted drunk driver from simply operating another vehicle without an interlock. Stoner prefers sentencing repeat drunk drivers to use a device called a S.C.R.A.M. bracelet. The ankle-bracelet constantly monitors a drunk driver's perspiration for signs of alcohol.
"We can monitor whether they've been drinking alcohol 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," Stoner explained. "It's a better monitoring system than ignition interlock could ever be."
But unlike an ignition interlock device, the bracelets cannot disable a car when a drunk driver gets behind the wheel. And Marion County has fewer than 400 bracelets for thousands of people convicted each year of drunk driving.
"Would we like to have more bracelets? You bet," Stoner said. "It's a matter of funding."
The bracelets are expensive and, even judges admit, there are no studies to show how effective they are compared to ignition interlock and other devices.
"This is a fundamental problem with criminal justice in Marion County and other places in Indiana: we don't have data for most of our programs to be able to tell what works and what doesn't," Stoner said.
And remember, unlike New Mexico judges, judges in Indiana are not required to order ignition interlock or S.C.R.A.M. Bracelets.
Despite enthusiastic support from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and several police departments, proposed legislation that would mandate ignition interlock devices for Indiana drunk drivers has failed in the Indiana General Assembly each of the past two years. Some state lawmakers are hesitant to support a mandatory ignition interlock law because they believe judges should not be limited to a specific sentence.
Judge Morrissey does not share that concern.
"If we had uniformity across the state, that would be a good thing," he said. "I think it's a fair sanction and if New Mexico's data is true, I would hope, as a state, we'd take a good hard look at expanding mandatory use of ignition interlock."
In the meantime, most Indiana judges don't sentence drunk drivers to use any technology.
That means drunk drivers like John Mason and Don Templeton could eventually be back on the road with nothing to slow them down.