Six weeks after Virginia began enforcing one of the nation’s toughest drunken-driving laws, federal officials are finalizing plans to entice other states to follow suit. Virginia is one of 17 states that require first-time drunken drivers to equip their cars with interlock devices that prevent the vehicle from starting if the would-be driver has had too much alcohol. Advocacy groups favor first-conviction interlock laws because federal data show that drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes were four times more likely to have a prior DUI conviction than were sober drivers.
“We're looking forward to getting more states to pass these laws and to getting more drunks off the roads,” said David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Some state legislatures have resisted requiring interlock use by first-time offenders. Now Strickland can dangle $20.8 million in highway safety funds as incentive for states to require the devices for everyone convicted of the crime. NHTSA issued data this month showing that almost one-third of highway fatalities — 10,228 in 2010 — resulted from crashes in which alcohol use was a factor. And 70 percent of those fatal accidents involved a driver whose blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit or above. “They're not just driving drunk. They're driving super-drunk,” said Kurt Erickson of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program. In addition to repeat offenders and the thoroughly drunk, Erickson said interlock programs help with the “core audience” for drunken driving, males between the ages of 21 and 35.