Study: Ignition interlock program working in Michigan

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Waterford Township — An ignition interlock program used by Michigan sobriety courts has been highly effective in modifying behavior of chronic drunken-driving offenders, according to a study released Thursday.

Officials in several state courts involved in the program, including 51st Court in Waterford Township, participated in a video conference with the Michigan Supreme Court to announce results from the program. Offenders are offered to voluntarily participate in the program and sobriety court as an alternative to jail sentences.

“These (sobriety) courts are saving money and saving lives,” said Judge Susan Dobrich of the Cass County Probate Family Court and president of the Michigan Association of Treatment Court Professionals. The association commissioned the study along with the State Court Administrators Office.

Convicted drunken drivers, such as Damian Micol of Milford, have been spared jail and were able to regain driving privileges by voluntarily using an interlock device on their vehicle steering wheels that analyzes breath to determine blood-alcohol levels.

“Without this, I probably wouldn’t have remained sober,” said the 27-year-old Micol, after graduating Thursday from a sobriety court program supervised by Waterford District Judge Richard Kuhn Jr.

“I know being able to drive myself — without having to rely on family or friends for rides — has enabled me to make it to work, to my probation appointments,” said Micol, who has been in the program for two years after his second drunken-driving arrest.

The program permits offenders to not only stay out of jail but resume their lives and eventually regain full driving privileges. Besides completing sentences including substance abuse counseling and completing community service, participants are required to submit to breath tests daily. The typical participant, according to the study, is white, male, single and about 34 years old.

Every day at 9 a.m., Micol must blow into a hand-held device attached to the steering wheel of his vehicle to measure his blood-alcohol level. While driving, Micol must repeat the process four times every hour.

The device prevents a vehicle from being driven if the BAC reaches a certain level. If compliant, the interlock unlocks the ignition. If not, an alarm goes off until the vehicle is turned off and the violation is recorded. The device must be reset by a service technician within a set period of time.

Devices are also equipped with GPS tracking data to ensure vehicles are only used for court permitted activities.

Some courts require participants to use the interlock device even when not operating a vehicle to show they are not consuming alcohol.

“It will be up to the judge on how long I must do this but I don’t care how long,” he said. “I’m sober and I nearly lost my wife and my job. I have my life back.”

Among the findings from the overview of participants between 2011-14:

■ 414 offenders have successfully graduated from the programs in Kalamazoo, Waterford Township, Grand Rapids, Traverse City and Marquette courts. Only 55 participants, or 11.7 percent, failed.

■ A sobriety court group that did not use interlock devices had 137 of 404 clients who did not complete their programs, or a failure rate of 33.9 percent.

■ More than 97 percent of participants ordered to install interlock devices on their vehicles have complied.

■ Only 0.5 percent of participants removed the devices without authorization

■ Alcohol and drug use among participants is lower than that of similar offender not under interlock supervision.

■ Just over 1 percent of participants tampered with an interlock device.

■ Less than 3 percent of the enrolled offenders have been convicted again for drunken driving.

The study also found participants had the lowest recidivism rates compared to non-interlock offenders in sobriety courts or to standard probationers. Participants had higher rates of educational improvement compared to those who did not participate in the interlock program. Those not in the interlock program had more than three times the odds of failing out of their respective therapeutic court programs.

The concept and technology of ignition interlock devices to modify driver behavior is more than 40 years old. It was first used as a specific component of treating drunken driving offenders in a Michigan sobriety court in 2009 by the Eaton 56th District Court.

Legislation in 2011 set eligibility requirements for offenders with two or more driving while impaired violations in the past seven years or three or more violations within 10 years.

According to the Michigan State Police, there were 236 alcohol-related deaths last year on Michigan roadways and 9,396 crashes involving alcohol.

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