SEATTLE — About 20,000 Washington residents use alcohol-sensing devices in their motor vehicles, putting this state among the top five for use of these DUI-prevention devices.
Most of those users result from Washington laws requiring ignition-interlock devices for all DUI offenders who want to drive.
New legislation aimed at boosting enforcement of interlock orders would give the industry an estimated 4,500 more customers per year, The Seattle Times reported in Tuesday’s newspaper.
Five Washington companies will benefit from that law, which they helped write.
“The companies are salivating,” said state Rep. Roger Goodman, a Kirkland Democrat and architect of the bill. “They’re in these meetings and they have to kind of bite their tongues at how excited they are.”
Critics say the industry lobbying for favorable laws has helped create a system with loose state oversight.
“There really should be a study into who owns the ignition-interlock devices and who participates in legislation,” said state Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, in a public hearing last Wednesday. “I think there’s something going on there.”
To Steve Luck, a longtime Washington State Patrol trooper who regulated the interlock industry for years before joining it last October, there is nothing going on but hard work to make the roads safer.
He said company officials, many of whom have been personally affected by alcohol-related tragedy, have pushed for regulation and focused on public safety as much as profits.
“It’s a business, but we’re here for a reason,” he said. “We believe in this.”
Interlock devices were invented in the mid-1970s by an automotive parts supplier hoping to sell the technology to Detroit.
The device features a breathalyzer, connected to the engine, that records a drivers’ blood alcohol level and blocks the engine if it exceeds a set level.
The car companies weren’t interested, but a few entrepreneurs were.
Entrepreneur and early interlock evangelist, Jerry Stanton, founded LifeSafer Ignition Interlock.
“It was a slow crawl,” said Stanton, now 64 and living in Seattle. He founded the company while living and working in Iowa.
Interlocks became a sentencing option in Washington in 1987, but weren’t widely used until lawmakers made them mandatory for repeat offenders in 1999.
That bill’s sponsor, then-Republican state Rep. Dino Rossi, said it was clear that simply suspending drivers’ licenses wasn’t working.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says interlocks, especially with developments like random alcohol-level retests during a drive and cameras that show who’s blowing into the device, may reduce recidivism by at least 50 percent while installed.
In 2004, Washington became one of the first states to require interlocks for first-time offenders.
That made the state industry profitable “overnight,” said Stanton, emphasizing he lost money here for a decade beforehand.
The state hasn’t tracked the numbers, but officials say it’s clear business has risen as lawmakers have instituted tougher laws, including requiring interlocks for some reckless- and negligent-driving charges.
This year, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and others are proposing a new law that would require interlock installation as a condition for release from jail for anyone arrested on DUI charges who has a prior drunken-driving conviction.
The proposal, like previous ones, came out of a public Impaired Driving Working Group founded by Goodman, the Kirkland lawmaker, in 2007.
Industry executive Steve Luce, then a 20-year State Patrol veteran specializing in breath tests, has participated in the group since the beginning. So has Stanton.
Stanton has also frequently donated to campaigns. Last year, he contributed nearly $7,000 to Goodman’s, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.
Another frequent participant is Luce’s old boss at the State Patrol, Robin Reichert, brother of U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash.
Luce and Robin Reichert are still working together — at Smart Start Inc.
Other manufacturers have participated as well, but Carrie Moore, a spokeswoman for AutoSafe Ignition Interlock, said their influence has been tempered by everybody else.
Seattle DUI defense lawyer Patricia Fulton said the companies have been constructive and open to oversight.