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Interlocks can save many lives

Once upon a time, the dangers of drunken driving were not fully understood. The penalties for being arrested for DWI were mild, and the social stigma was minimal.

It’s different today. We have made progress in reducing fatalities caused by drunk drivers. That may explain why are streets and highways are safer today than 25 years ago.

However, they could be safer. Some 10,000 people die annually in drunken-driving crashes. Stricter limits on blood-alcohol levels, stiffer penalties and more diligent enforcement can do so much.

There is another option that has paid dividends in recent years. That option requires all individuals convicted of driving under the influence to install ignition interlocks on their cars and trucks before being allowed to drive again.

To start the car, the driver essentially has to pass a Breathalyzer test. Seventeen states now impose this condition not just on chronic offenders but on first-time offenders as well.

Now the National Transportation Safety Board wants to take it national. In a report issued last month, it recommended that all states mandate interlocks for all DWI offenders. The agency points to legislation in Congress that would provide federal grants to states to encourage this step.

These devices address one of the most intractable problems with drunken drivers: Recidivism. Short of locking them up forever, it’s impossible to keep them from getting behind the wheel. Interlocks provide some assurance that when those convicted of DWI do drive, they won’t be intoxicated.

Interlocks can be defeated by having someone else to blow into them, but they make it more difficult to break the law. Who wants to enable a drunk to drive?

First-time offenders who have been punished under the law deserve a second chance. However, the rest of us deserve an assurance that when they get it, they’ll be sober.