Four years ago, Sonoma County judges were largely ignoring a law intended to curtail drunken driving by requiring some offenders to install alcohol-detection devices in their cars.
Today, court records show, the judges have dramatically increased their use of the law governing ignition interlock devices, although, as is the case statewide, they still do so only part of the time.
There is no system that tracks how many of the people ordered to install an ignition interlock do so. And alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes in Sonoma County are up since 2002, suggesting, at the very least, that the devices are having little noticeable effect at the rate judges currently order them.
Still, there is a national push for more technological solutions to address drunken driving deaths, which after dropping for years have leveled off at about 13,000 a year in the United States. And a coalition including traffic safety and law enforcement officials argues that the ignition interlocks are a key in that effort.
"It's not a fix-all, obviously, but I think it is a really, really good tool," said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Doug Schlief, who supervises the department's traffic enforcement unit.
Since 1999, state law has said judges "must order" people convicted of or arrested for driving on a license suspended for prior drunken driving to install an ignition interlock device.
The increasingly sophisticated ignition locks are meant to prevent vehicles from starting unless the driver passes a computerized sobriety test. A national campaign led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and including some car manufacturers is pushing for their increased use in DUI cases.
"We will push for mandatory installation of ignition interlock devices for repeat offenders, especially anyone with a second DUI or more," said Matthias Mendezona, victim services specialist with the state MADD chapter.
The devices' effectiveness in certain instances is questioned.
And in Sonoma County in 2005, well into a concerted effort by county judges and prosecutors to ensure more installations, fatal crashes involving alcohol rose to 28, from 13 in 2002, while injury crashes rose to 482 from 372.
A November 2005 state Department of Motor Vehicles report concluded the devices are ineffective in reducing drunken driving recidivism for first-time offenders.
But that report found that in other cases the devices reduce repeat DUIs, and it called for greater judicial compliance with state law as well as increased use of the devices for repeate offenders. It said "judges ordered IIDs for only a small minority" of offenders who should have installed them.
"We are in support of stronger enforcement of the law," said Armando Botello, a DMV spokesman. He said repeat DUI offenders account for 23 percent of fatal alcohol-related crashes.
In 2002, a Press Democrat review of Sonoma County Superior Court records showed local judges ordered the devices in about 5 percent of the cases where they were mandatory.
Four years later, it's a different story. Judges ordered ignition interlocks installed in 371 out of 698 cases between Jan. 1, 2005, and Oct. 31, 2006. That's 53 percent of the cases when such an order was required.
"We've obviously stepped it up," said Judge Cerena Wong, who supervises the court's criminal division.
Taylor Reed, whose company sells ignition interlock installation services around Northern California, holds, not surprisingly, a different view.