1 July 2017
The government has announced that, this year, alcohol interlocks will become mandatory for some convicted drink drivers. In this article, our correspondent details what it’s like to have an interlock installed and how it may help them never to drink and drive again.
I have an alcohol interlock wired into my car’s ignition system. It means my car will refuse to start unless I blow into the device with absolutely no alcohol on my breath. It was put there for 12 months by order of the courts after my second drink drive conviction, and I both love it and hate it.
I love my interlock, because every time I go to drive, I’m necessarily reminded that I have two drink driving convictions (one of them disturbingly high) and that I have been courting a potentially serious alcohol problem. I love that it reinforces an association between sobriety and driving in my mind and that, for as long as I have it installed, I’m prevented from drinking and driving again and accidentally killing someone. That’s a biggie.
I hate the interlock because it’s embarrassing and leaves me with nowhere to hide. Anyone in the car with me will want to know what this device is and why it’s there – and what can I tell them but the truth?
The noise I have to make when blowing into it is also embarrassing. I need to sort of hum and blow at the same time for it to work, which sounds a bit like the moans a pig with a very sore tummy might make.
And I have to make that noise an average of every 20 minutes or so while driving.
The device randomly beeps as long as the ignition is on, and I have to blow again each time or it will refuse to start next time I stop. This is to prevent me from having a sober friend, who’s also good at imitating a pig in pain, from starting my car and letting me drive away after drinking.
I can’t imagine any true friend who would do that, however, and I certainly wouldn’t wish for one.
It’s also inconvenient. When I first took my car in for repairs, I had to wait around the whole time to start it whenever the mechanics needed to move or test it. The second time we decided it was better for me to spend 15 minutes getting one of the crew up to speed on achieving the porcine blow. That’s worked out ok.
Every month, too, I have to drive 25km to the installer so my interlock data can be downloaded for analysis. Any time I attempted to start the car with alcohol on my breath or failed a rolling retest would be recorded as a violation, and I can’t apply to have the interlock removed unless I’ve had no violations at all for the last six months of the sentence.
Once the interlock has been removed, I will only be eligible to apply for a zero alcohol licence. This type of licence is restricted (or limited) to a three-year term.
It’s a welcome condition. It means that, for the next three to four years, alcohol is no longer a choice if I want to drive my car. It’s unthinkable to me to risk another alcohol and driving offence, and if I can go four years without booze, chances are I can make it a permanent thing.
In short, if you haven’t used your interlock year to work on your alcohol problem, there’s no guarantee you’ll be in much better shape once the device is removed.
As things currently stand, if you have two drink drive convictions within five years and at least one of them is very high (more than 800 micrograms where the legal limit is 250 micrograms), you are eligible to receive an interlock sentence.
You are disqualified from driving for three months instead of the one year and a day that would normally apply in these circumstances. This is a good thing because losing your licence for more than a year means your current licence lapses for good, and you go back to being like a teenager again. After your 366 or 367 days, you have to apply for a completely new licence, get a learner licence, probably have to take driving lessons etc, which would be an absolute pain in the neck.
This may extend the punishment, but it would achieve little in terms of deterring anyone from drinking and driving. Ordinarily, receiving an interlock sentence would cost you $2,500 or more over the course of the year. This is on top of any fines you receive and covers the rental of the device, its installation and the cost of the monthly data downloads.
However, due to low numbers receiving the sentences, the Department of Corrections was running a scheme at the time of my sentencing where they would pay the full cost for 100 interlock sentence recipients. I was lucky enough to get the 97th placing.
It was Corrections’ view that cost was the major barrier to people receiving interlock sentences, but I doubt that is truly the reason. Quite simply, almost everyone I encountered in the legal system at the time had little or no understanding of the interlock sentencing scheme, and that’s why it was not being used.
I didn’t hire a lawyer because I didn’t think the one I engaged for my first offence five years ago did anything I couldn’t have done. This was a mistake. The tired, harassed and disinterested duty lawyer I was assigned on the day (and who I saw for less than 10 minutes before my appearance) had no idea what an interlock was or how to ask for it. He mentioned it when addressing the judge because I insisted on it but was completely unable to make any case for it.
And the judge had no idea either. His view was that I couldn’t have an interlock because the Land Transport Act 1998 mandated an indefinite licence disqualification. He was unaware that amendments later in this very long and complicated Act override that requirement if an interlock is deemed appropriate.
I had done my homework, but before I could ask to explain the Act to the judge, the gavel had come down and my interlock was denied.
It took another six weeks and a few thousand dollars hiring a lawyer with transport expertise – but who knew nothing about interlocks at the start either – before I could get a sentence review and was finally successful. This lawyer presented overseas research to the court about the effectiveness of interlocks and explained how the original judge had gotten things wrong. This was upheld, and I got my interlock.
So my advice to anyone wanting an interlock sentence would be to use a lawyer and not assume that the courts will be on board, think it’s a good idea or even know what you are asking for.
The good news is that all this is likely to change as the government intends to bring in legislation this year to make interlock sentences mandatory for anyone convicted of two or more drink driving offences within five years as well as first-time offenders caught driving more than 3.2 times over the legal limit.
Offenders will still have to pay, but $4m will be set aside in a subsidy scheme to assist those who can’t afford them. Under the new legislation, the mandatory three month disqualification will be removed.Convicted drivers will only be disqualified until they apply for an interlock licence.
The Land Transport Amendment Bill containing the changes had its first reading in September 2016 and is now with the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee. Exactly when the legislation will come into force is uncertain, but it should be this year.
It’s not rocket science. Interlocks work very well, at least while they are fitted. Overseas research* shows they significantly reduce drink drive recidivism for those who have them installed. The news is less good, however, once they are removed.
Illinois-based research in 2003 (Raub, Lucke and Wark) found drivers with interlocks were 80 percent less likely to be arrested for drink driving than the comparison group during the one-year term of the interlock fitting. Once the interlock was removed, this ratio continued for up to one year, with the two groups reverting to similar proportions three years after interlock removal.
A 2011 evaluation of Saskatchewan’s voluntary interlock scheme (Robertson et al.) followed 681 offenders for up to three years after their interlock was removed, compared with a control group of 2,796 offenders not installing an interlock.
For the time between conviction and interlock removal, recidivism rates for the interlock group were 81 percent lower than the comparison group and 21 percent lower up to three years after interlock removal. These are more encouraging results, but it should be emphasised that this scheme was voluntary, meaning participants were more likely to be motivated not to drink and drive. In 2006, Sheehan et al. reported on a Queensland interlock trial and found that, compared with a control group of offenders, interlock participants had fewer incidents of drink driving during the two years after the programme.
Importantly, the study also demonstrated that the positive effects were not due to legal sanctions alone, such as suspension and use of the interlock, but through combining the effects of these with educational and counselling interventions.
In short, if you haven’t used your interlock year to work on your alcohol problem, there’s no guarantee you’ll be in much better shape once the device is removed, even if you have met all the exit criteria.
Normally when you receive an alcohol interlock sentence, you are also required to have an alcohol assessment by a recognised treatment provider. The assumption is that, if you really want to work on your problem and make sure you never drink and drive again, you’ll make sure you get the counselling and therapy you need. In other words, the alcohol interlock is not a magic bullet – just one very effective tool in your struggle for redemption.
It works for me. I no longer lie awake at night anxiously ruminating over how I could have killed someone and worrying that it might happen again. My interlock and the therapy I’ve enjoyed have given me a much needed start on sober driving for the rest of my life.
I’m confident I’ll meet the exit criteria when my 12 months are up, and moving to a zero alcohol licence after that will not be a big deal. By then, not drinking and driving should be second nature.
Ultimately, however, whether it remains so will be up to me.
* There aren’t yet figures available to establish the reoffending rate in New Zealand as the interlock scheme has not been in place for long or had a very high uptake.
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