An alcohol ignition interlock has a breath-testing unit that is connected to a vehicle's ignition. In order to start the vehicle, the driver must blow into the device and register a blood alcohol reading that is below a predetermined level. If the blood alcohol reading exceeds this level, the interlock prevents the vehicle from starting. An estimated 279,000 interlocks were in use in 2012 in the United States.
Studies have shown that alcohol ignition interlocks are effective in reducing recidivism. In a 1999 Institute study, multiple offenders eligible for license reinstatement were randomly assigned interlock-restricted licenses or unrestricted licenses coupled with the conventional post licensing treatment program. The interlock restriction reduced the risk of committing an alcohol-related traffic violation within the first year following conviction by 64 percent.
A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies of ignition interlock programs found the programs seemed to reduce recidivism while the devices were installed in offenders' vehicles, but found no evidence for any effectiveness once the devices were removed.
In 21 states and four California counties counties, all alcohol-impaired driving offenders, including first-time offenders, must install interlocks to resume driving. An additional 12 states (Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) require interlocks for first-time offenders with high BACs (usually 0.15 percent or higher) and for repeat offenders, 9 states (California, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina) require them only for repeat offenders, and 2 states (Nevada and Tennessee) only for high-BAC first time offenders. Six states (Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, and South Dakota) and the District of Columbia have no mandatory interlock requirements.
An Institute study showed that mandatory interlock laws for all offenders are effective.
Researchers looked at what happened in Washington when the state expanded its interlock requirement in 2004 to cover everyone convicted of DUI, not just those with multiple offenses or high BACs. They found the recidivism rate fell 12 percent for first-time offenders with BACs under 0.15 percent. The law change was associated with an 8.3 percent reduction in single-vehicle late-night crash risk, suggesting a general deterrent effect of the expanded interlock requirement.
However, even when laws require offenders to have interlocks if they drive, many people don’t go through with the installation. In the Washington study, only about a third of the first-time offenders with BACs under 0.15 percent obtained interlocks. (If all of them had, their recidivism rate would have fallen by nearly half.)
Some offenders may sidestep an interlock installation requirement by agreeing not to drive at all or claiming not to have a vehicle. In a pilot program in Santa Fe County, N. M., when judges imposed house arrest via electronic monitoring as the alternative to an interlock, 70 percent of offenders installed interlocks, compared with only 17 percent in the other counties. When the program ended, the Santa Fe installation rate declined.