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In DUI Law, California Strong in Some Areas, Weak in Others

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Dennis Romero for LA Weekly asks whether California's strict drunk driving laws are tough enough, leading with the statement that "cars are safer than ever," but even the safest cars may not stop some drivers from injuring themselves or others. "More than a third of all traffic fatalities in California can be blamed on drunk drivers," Romero writes, citing data published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As Romero asks, why is the number so high when California imposes among the harshest punishments in the U.S. for impaired driving?

It turns out that California isn't quite as tough on DUI as it might appear.

Threat of Criminal Punishment Not Enough

One of the simplest explanations may be that people are willing to risk getting behind the wheel when they shouldn't. In other words, perhaps the law itself doesn't provide enough motivation to stop people from making poor decisions.

You see this play out in how California stacks up against other states:

  • Strong: Insurance costs go up for drunk drivers
  • Strong: Amount of jail time
  • Strong: Suspension of driver's licenses
  • Weak: No ignition interlock requirement
  • Weak: Impaired driving with a child in the car is not a felony
  • Weak: Fewer DUI checkpoints than other states

Romero cites a WalletHub analysis, which ranked states by their respective DUI laws, as well as an email conversation with a spokesperson from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "California still has work to do to pass the best drunk driving laws," wrote MADD.

For example, California ranked first in the U.S. for increased insurance costs, but only 31st for "prevention measures" - think ignition interlock devices, which prevent the car from starting if the device detects the presence of alcohol on the driver's breath.

More Ignition Interlock Devices Coming to CA Soon

That said, as LA Weekly reported back in 2010, Los Angeles itself made strides on preventive measures with ignition interlock devices made a requirement for DUI offenders. At the time, MADD said, "The interlock device lets them go to work, go to school, go anywhere they want to go. It just requires them to go sober."

In 2019, ignition interlocks will roll out statewide, but as MADD points out via Romero, their use apparently will not be required in every courtroom as part of the resolution of a case.

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