Smashed: The toll of driving drunk in Minnesota

Drink and drive? These Minnesota cars just say no

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2010 - 10:04 AM

About 500 Minnesotans are part of a pilot program in which their cars are fitted with devices that let them drive only if they're sober.

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Cesar Baltierrez, a third-time DWI offender, demonstrated how the device works on his car.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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The first time Cesar Baltierrez was caught driving drunk, he lost his license for 30 days. The second time, it was six months. When caught a third time in March 2009, he knew he could lose his license for a year, and authorities could seize and auction his car.

Baltierrez was frantic. He needed to drive to work to support his two children. Then he discovered he qualified under a special program to volunteer to have a device installed in his car that would let him drive it only when sober.

Baltierrez must breathe into an ignition interlock switch that won't let him start the car if his blood-alcohol concentration is above 0.02 -- one fourth the normal legal limit to drive. He is one of about 500 Minnesotans currently using the devices under a pilot program that went statewide in July, following the example of many states that use the technology routinely.

"I haven't drank for 10 months now," Baltierrez said. "I know there are consequences if I do drink."

Minnesota lawmakers will review the pilot program in 2011 and decide whether to make the devices mandatory for offenders. Mothers Against Drunk Driving renewed its call for the devices after Paul Garay, of St. Paul Park, was infamously charged with his 20th drunken driving offense in December.

Authorities who work with drunken drivers also advocate for the widespread use of the devices, noting that although they don't change long-term behavior, they have been shown to be an effective component in a comprehensive approach to chemical dependency treatment.

"It's the technology of the future," said Jean Ryan, alcohol programs coordinator at the Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety. "We were the last [state] to pass 0.08. We don't want to be the last [state] to use technology that prevents drunk driving."

There were 35,736 DWI arrests in Minnesota in 2008, and 163 alcohol-related traffic deaths. About 40 percent of the state's DWI arrests involve repeat offenders, and a third of traffic deaths are alcohol-related.

Check and recheck

Ignition interlock devices are installed in a vehicle's console. The device requires drivers to blow and then inhale for a certain amount of time. It requires a second breath test five minutes into the drive and randomly times tests after that.

If the driver fails, the device disables the car.

For the pilot program, vendors download information from the device once a month, and the data are monitored by the state Department of Public Safety. Failures are reported to probation officers. Just a few days ago, Baltierrez's device malfunctioned. He immediately made his way to downtown Minneapolis and provided a urine sample to prove his sobriety.

"Sometimes, it gets annoying, but I guess that's the price we pay," he said.

The pilot program was started in 2006, with Hennepin and Beltrami counties. It worked well in Hennepin County, but Beltrami County participants found their rural location made it difficult and costly to obtain and service their devices through the one vendor, in the Twin Cities area.

No repeat offenses

About 100 people in Hennepin County had the devices, and none re-offended while using it, said Emil Carlson-Clark, a county probation officer. Since the pilot program's statewide expansion last summer, the number of participants has increased by about 100 each month, and now the cost is lower because the number of vendors has grown to four, Ryan said.

"It's gotten better," said Sheila Fontaine, a probation officer who works with Beltrami's DWI offenders. "On a regular basis, we have people opting for this program."

Offenders pay about $50 for a private vendor to install the device in their car, $75 to $100 each month to have the device monitored and about $50 to have it removed. Someone with three DWI convictions in 10 years can expect to have the device for two years.

There is a potential cost-savings to counties, given that it costs about $90 a day to detain someone in the Hennepin County Jail, said Fourth District Judge John Holohan, who oversees the county's DWI court.

The devices have grown in popularity nationwide since the early 2000s, but some states have been using them intermittently since the 1990s, including Wisconsin and Illinois. In 2008, Illinois made the devices available for first-time offenders on a voluntary basis and made them mandatory for repeat offenders.

Mostly voluntary

Minnesota's pilot program generally offers them to repeat offenders who volunteer, although some judges can impose them as a condition of release.

Starting in July, Wisconsin will require first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol level higher than .15 and all second-time offenders to have a device. Wisconsin logged 1,748 orders for the devices in 2001. That grew to 4,177 in 2007.

About 22 states use interlock devices for first-time offenders, Ryan said.

For now, Ryan said, Minnesota is moving at a slower pace, banking on the success of such people as Baltierrez to demonstrate why use of the devices should become routine. Driving with one has been life-changing, said Baltierrez.

"I can see that my life is better than from when I was drinking," he said. "I'm pretty sure I'm not going to go back."

Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391

  • about this series

  • In Minnesota, drunken drivers who kill someone with their car sometimes get less time behind bars than nonviolent offenders. Public safety advocates say it's part of a culture of forgiveness surrounding drunken driving, a social problem that killed 893 people on Minnesota roads in the past five years. Read the Star Tribune's in-depth look at the scourge of drunken driving, the victims it claims and the public safety questions it raises.

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