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A step forward in the fight against drunk driving

Volunteer Gregg Henderson blows into the ignition interlock device Wednesday at the drinking and driving demonstration in Shelton. If a person’s blood alcohol level is above a certain threshold, the device will not allow the vehicle to start. - Photo by Jesse Beals
Volunteer Gregg Henderson blows into the ignition interlock device Wednesday at the drinking and driving demonstration in Shelton. If a person’s blood alcohol level is above a certain threshold, the device will not allow the vehicle to start.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals

Gregg Henderson jumped behind the wheel and took to the road after consuming several drinks.

Henderson, of Sammamish, was one of four volunteers who participated in a drinking and driving demonstration Wednesday at the Washington State Patrol (WSP) Academy in Shelton.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), WSP and the Washington Traffic Safety Commission teamed up to conduct research on the effects that just one alcoholic drink can have on motorists.

“Our goal is to show that people’s driving can be impaired by alcohol at levels below the limit of .08, and that interlock technology can prevent them from making a bad decision to drive when they should not be behind the wheel of a car,” said Lowell Porter, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

MADD Chief Executive Officer Chuck Hurley and national president Glynn Birch flew in to attend the demonstration. The alcohol ignition interlock device also was tested and discussed throughout the event.

“Washington raises the bar for the rest of the nation as they have set a goal to eliminate drunk driving and this demonstration is just one proof of that commitment,” Hurley said. “The demonstration brings to life the reality that ignition interlocks are essential to saving lives and preventing needless injuries.”

The four volunteers, two men and two women, first drove through a closed course sober. WSP officials then monitored them as they drank hard liquor and reached the .05-.06 blood alcohol level. They then performed standardized field sobriety and breath testing followed by low speed skill driving on the closed course. The two men and two women continued to drink alcohol until they reached the legal limit, .08, and completed the same tests and driving course.

“I’m definitely a different person than I was when I was sober,” Henderson said.

The four volunteers were instructed to use the rules of the road and not exceed 20 mph on the closed course. A WSP trooper sat in the passenger’s seat and used a passenger-side brake if necessary. After consuming alcohol, the men and women forgot instructions and hit several orange cones while driving through the course.

“They’re definitely showing their impairment,” said Marsha Masters, president of the Kitsap County MADD chapter, who attended the event.

To reach the .08 blood alcohol limit, the volunteers did not have to consume many beverages, but it obviously impaired their driving abilities.

“I think the drivers are finding out that .08 is a lot of alcohol,” Birch said. “It begins with one drink.”

The volunteers also demonstrated how the ignition interlock device works. The device is attached to a vehicle’s electrical system and requires a driver to submit a breath test before the vehicle will start. After consuming alcoholic beverages and reaching .05, the volunteers blew into the device and the vehicle would not start.

“Even at low levels it wouldn’t start,” Porter said.

Porter added that people continue to drink and drive and the state’s Traffic Safety Commission and MADD hope the ignition interlock device will prevent people from drinking and driving.

In 2006, more than 42,804 people were charged with DUI and Washington has tough sanctions for people convicted of the offense. In Washington, a DUI conviction results in license suspension, ignition interlock, and jail and/or electronic home monitoring. Despite such efforts, nationally, 75 percent of drivers with suspended or revoked licenses continue to drive and one in every five fatal crashes involves at least one driver who is not properly licensed, according to a news release.

“Up to three quarters of people who lose their license continue to drive,” Hurley said. “We as a country have been practicing a catch and release program.”

Birch lost his 21-month-old son to a drunk driver in 1988 and said the ignition interlock device is a step forward in the fight against drunk driving.

“You deserve an alcohol ignition interlock if you’ve been convicted of drunk driving,” he said. “We have technology today to make a difference.”

Masters and Betty Skinner, of the Kitsap County Chapter of MADD, made the hour-long drive to Shelton to attend the impaired driving event. Masters was pleased with the event and hopes to bring it to Kitsap County and demonstrate the effects alcohol has on a person’s driving ability.

“We’d like to see if we could do this,” she said. “Between Kitsap County (Sheriff’s Office) and state patrol we can get our agencies to buy into it and do the same thing.”

MADD hopes to have the alcohol ignition interlock device installed in every driver’s car who has been convicted of DUI. Hurley said it will not happen overnight, but the event in Shelton was a step in the right direction. WSP filmed the demonstration and will use it for training purposes.

“I just appreciate it that they’re doing this to bring more awareness to it, they are not sweeping it under the rug,” Masters said.

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