Breathing (Too) Easy

Under Nevada law, ignition interlock devices are mandatory after a felony DUI or a misdemeanor DUI in which the driver’s blood-alcohol content was above .18. But “mandatory” seems to have some wiggle room in Nevada. The law allows the judge to exempt a driver from the interlock for a host of reasons: if the court determines that installing the $200 device would cause the driver economic hardship, or if the driver uses the car for traveling to and from work, taking kids to school, obtaining food or medicine—basically, anything.

In fact, the law has so many holes, a study by the Reno Gazette-Journal this spring found that “None of the 113 people convicted since 2000 of serious drunken driving charges in Washoe County were ordered to install an alcohol-testing device in their cars, despite a state law requiring judges to do so.” While Clark County has a better record—some 300 interlock devices are in use right now—activists still wanted to close the loopholes. But a bill that would have done so appears to have died in the Senate as lawmakers approached a self-imposed deadline.

“We were trying to tighten up the law because it makes no sense,” said Sandy Heverly, executive director of Stop DUI, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Especially the exception for transporting your children to and from school.”

Senate Bill 166, sponsored by Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, and Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, would have limited judicial discretion and lowered the level at which a misdemeanor blood-alcohol content warrants an interlock device from .18 to .15.

Forty-seven states have interlock laws. Twenty-four states allow interlock devices after the first offense and nine have mandatory requirements for all DUIs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Hawaii and California have passed laws that will mandate interlocks for all DUI cases starting later this year. Federal legislation is also pending that would require interlock laws before states can receive federal highway dollars.

As of March, Nevada had 761 active interlock devices. To put that in context, there were more than 20,000 DUI arrests and 14,000 convictions in 2009, the most recent numbers available from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Still, the Clark County Public Defenders office opposed the bill. Deputy Public Defender Tierra Jones testified against it in committee earlier this spring: “Taking the full discretion away from judges,” she said, “makes everybody eligible for the [interlock] when the situation may not warrant it.”

Heverly and her family were victims of a car accident in which the other driver was drunk, and she’s been advocating for tougher laws for almost 30 years. In testifying for the bill in March, she told lawmakers that had the interlock technology been available in 1983, “maybe my 8-year-old son would’ve escaped being skinned alive.”

She gives this Memorial Day weekend caution: “Use a designated driver. Or call a cab, for heaven’s sake. The average cost of a first-time misdemeanor offense is $13,000 by the time you pay your attorney, your court fees and your SR22 [insurance]. Compare that to the cost of a cab ride.”