Drunk Drivers in Massachusetts Can Still Evade Ignition Interlock Penalties

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now the only state in the U.S. where individuals convicted of a first-time offense of operating under the influence of alcohol cannot be subjected to interlock ignition devices before their car keys are returned. Boston drunk driving accident attorneys understand a number of traffic safety activists are trying to change this.Boston drunk driving injury lawyer

Among those involved are AAA Northeast and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), who have for years been pushing lawmakers to expand ignition interlock device usage. These machines, required of repeat OUI offender in Massachusetts since the 2005 passage of Melanie’s Law, which enhanced numerous penalties for drunk driving.

Per MGL 90, § 24, and MGL 90 § 24 ½, ignition interlock devices are to be installed – and paid for – by individuals convicted twice or more of operating under the influence, either when they are eligible for license restatement following their revocation/suspension OR during their revocation/suspension if they qualify for a condition hardship driver’s license. The latter is only good for 12 hours daily throughout that time.

The devices require the driver to provide an alcohol-free breath sample before the vehicle will start. If the individual tests positive for alcohol over a certain point, the ignition “locks” and the vehicle won’t start. The device also records the number of failed breath tests, which can be submitted to a judge and used as evidence against the driver if a condition of probation or parole is that the individual not consume alcohol. 

However, while other states require the device for those after their first conviction for impaired driving, Massachusetts only mandates it after a second or subsequent offense. At that point, it can be mandated for up to two years, with judicial discretion.

Ignition Interlock Devices Prove Effective in Curbing Drunk Driving

Ignition interlock devices have been touted by anti-drunk driving activists because they prevent known offenders from operating a vehicle – unless they can prove they aren’t impaired. This is important because, as noted by MADD, roughly one-third of all drunk drivers are repeat offenders. Even those who are technically first-time offenders have statistically driven drunk at least 80 times before they actually got caught.

MADD reports that states that have adopted ignition interlock device laws applicable to all offenders have seen the number of drunk driving deaths plummet. Research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that repeat offenses of drunk driving deaths fell by 67 percent in states with strictly-enforced ignition interlock laws.

Given that drunk driving injures more than 290,000 and kills more than 10,000 every single year, a two-thirds reduction – even a one-third reduction – would mean thousands of lives saved and potentially hundreds of thousands fewer maimed and scarred.

Lawmakers in every state – except Massachusetts – have agreed.

It’s a bit puzzling considering the commonwealth is so progressive on so many other issues. In a single recent year, drunk driving claimed 120 lives here – a number that has remained largely unchanged in a decade.

Road Safety Advocates Push for Change

Some state lawmakers are on board to help change this, the latest effort being S 2137 and H 1580, which would require first-time OUI offenders to have the device installed.

It’s not a new effort. In previous years, all such efforts were shot down in committee. Now, two senate bills are currently being weighed by the state’s Transportation Committee, while the other is being mulled by lawmakers in the Judiciary Committee.

Survivors of drunk driving crashes in Massachusetts say they’ve been upset by the lack of action on the legislative front, given how much they have been through and the data that proves these measures work.

Drunk Driving Accident Victims’ Legal Rights

The good news for Massachusetts drunk driving accident victims is that it’s not even necessary for a driver to be convicted of OUI in order to collect damages for negligence. In fact the question of whether a defendant is guilty of OUI and whether a defendant can be found negligent/liable for a crash are dealt with in two separate courts independent of each other. Further, the standard of proof in a criminal case – beyond a reasonable doubt – is much higher than what is necessary to establish in a civil case, which necessitates a finding that the evidence points to plaintiff’s conclusions by a preponderance of the evidence.

It is true that evidence gathered in a criminal case – including blood-alcohol concentration, observations of an officer at the scene (assuming he or she comes to court to attest to those observations) and other details can be presented in a civil case for damages.

Still, an accident alone is not negligence. Consumption of alcohol to the point of intoxication and then driving IS considered negligence per se (or negligence as a matter of law), but one still needs to prove that the crash was either caused in whole/in part by that negligence or that but for that negligence, the injuries sustained would not have been so severe.

Impaired drivers can also still claim that other motorists were comparatively negligent, meaning that to some extent in some way shared a degree of blame for their own injuries. MGL ch. 231 s. 85 stipulates that comparative negligence won’t bar a plaintiff from filing a claim in Massachusetts (unless the claimant is more than 50 percent to blame for the crash), but it can proportionately reduce one’s damages. That’s why it’s something to which Boston drunk driving attorneys pay close attention.

We will also look closely at who served the alcohol to the driver in question and who loaned the car used – particularly if the driver was known to be a prior or repeat offender with an ignition interlock device. This could be the basis for a claim of dram shop liability (the server of alcohol) or negligent entrustment (the owner of the vehicle). Licensed vendors are not to sell alcohol to those who are intoxicated, and vehicle owners are not to entrust their cars to those known to be reckless or dangerous behind the wheel.

In many drunk driving civil lawsuits, the question is often less focused on who was at-fault and more on the extent of one’s damages. This can be a complex battle of its own. That’s why it’s imperative that those injured in Boston drunk driving crashes seek immediate legal assistance.

If you or someone you love has been injured a Boston drunk driving accident, call for a free and confidential appointment at (617) 777-7777.

Additional Resources:

Activists Come Out In Favor Of Ignition Interlock Devices For First-Time Drunk Drivers, July 31, 2019, CBS Boston

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