Washington citizens could soon see significant changes in state persecution and prevention of drunk driving.
In late January, judges from several Washington counties ruled that Breathalyzer test results from last year should be thrown out due to problems at the state toxicology lab.
Last year, a calibration error was discovered in some of the Breathalyzer machines, causing people to appear more intoxicated than they actually were. According to the Washington State Patrol, Ann Marie Gordon, the lab's manager, had been falsely signing documents saying she had checked the calibration of the machines. Gordon resigned last summer.
“We need to be as accurate as possible if we're going to utilize [Breathalyzers],” said Elva Giddings, coordinator of Western's Alcohol and Drug Consultation, Assessment and Skills Program (ADCAS). “When a question like this is raised, it shakes our faith in a system that should be held to an incredibly high standard of accuracy.”
The inaccuracy of the Breathalyzer results could lead to hundreds of appeals in DUI cases throughout the state, and in the absence of other sobriety test results and officer observations of erratic driving, some of those cases could be thrown out altogether.
“These problems open the door to people being uncomfortable with all data, and then even good evidence could be called into question,” Giddings said.
In addition, House Bill 2771, which might have helped law enforcers catch drunk drivers by establishing sobriety checkpoints, died in committee during this year's legislative session.
According to Washington State Patrol spokesman Kirk Rudeen, sobriety checkpoints are areas that have had a high number of DUI incidents in the past. Law enforcers receive a warrant from the Washington State Supreme Court and alert the media that they will be patrolling those areas at a certain time, usually late at night when the possibility of drunk driving is highest. Then the police can stop every vehicle that drives through that area and test the driver for possible intoxication. A study conducted by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation showed that sobriety checkpoints result in a 20 percent reduction in alcohol-related incidents.
“Statistically, after 2 a.m. one out of every four drivers on the road is legally drunk, so sobriety checkpoints might make a big difference around that time,” said Brian Arcement, a volunteer and peer adviser for Western's Drug Information Center.
Since House Bill 2771 was not passed, sobriety checkpoints will not be utilized this year. However, Rudeen said that the bill will probably be presented again for next year's legislative session.
Despite this setback, another bill could reduce drunk driving incidents by mandating the use of alcohol ignition interlocks.
According to a Mothers Against Drunk Driving press release, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, will soon be introducing a bill that will require the use of alcohol ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk driving offenders, including first-time offenders. An alcohol ignition interlock is a device attached to a car's ignition system that requires the driver to blow into the device before the car will start. If the device detects alcohol greater than or equal to .025 percent blood alcohol concentration, the car will not start.
There are approximately 100,000 interlocks currently in service in the United States. If Goodman's bill is passed, Washington will be the fifth state to mandate interlocks for first-time DUI offenders. The states that currently require it are Illinois, New Mexico, Arizona and Louisiana.
“It is a step to help reduce the risk of drunk driving, but the system needs to be significantly improved,” Giddings said. “People will be told they're required to install an ignition interlock device, but there often isn't any follow-up to make sure they actually installed it. And a person could easily borrow someone else's car that doesn't have the device, or ask a sober person to blow into the device for them.”
According to Arcement, the most important way to prevent drunk driving incidents in Bellingham and the rest of the state is education.
“Everyone is told that drunk driving is bad, but a lot of people aren't given actual facts,” Arcement said. “What it comes down to is making sure people have the education they need to make the correct personal choices.”
Despite differing opinions on the best ways to prevent drunk driving, the issue has proven to be significant for Washington state. Rudeen said that drunk driving is responsible for 39 percent of fatal collisions in Washington. Last year there were over 5,300 DUI arrests in Rudeen's district alone, which includes Whatcom, Snohomish, Skagit and Island counties.
Giddings said that the majority of students she talks to in ADCAS are very concerned about drunk driving, often because it has directly impacted their lives.
“It's surprising how many students have personal stories where someone they know was killed or significantly injured due to drunk driving incidents,” Giddings said. “It has touched many, many people.”