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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.

"That represents a pretty big disconnect between implementation and the mandated law," said Reed, vice president of Ignition Interlock Service Centers of California.

Judges have the discretion to order the locks installed in any DUI case, and in that category too, the county's judges have increasingly issued that order.

State records show the judges ordered the locks installed in 5.4 percent of such cases in 2003 (the most recent data available) or 118 out of 2,191 DUI cases in which they were allowed but not required to order them.

That was compared to 0.02 percent in 2001, and was higher than the statewide figure of 3.8 percent for 2003.

Judges in 17 counties ordered the devices installed at higher rates than in Sonoma County in 2003. San Francisco County judges ordered the device in 13.7 percent of all DUI cases. In Mendocino County, the rate was 12.6 percent. In Ventura County, it was 21.8 percent.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Diana Gomez said prosecutors ask for the device to be installed in all cases in which it is mandatory and in many other cases in which it is allowed.

Judge Arthur Wick said: "To my knowledge I have been ordering it in all cases wherein it is mandatory. I have never rejected a request by the D.A. to have a device installed."

But Reed said the court has been "indifferent" to his complaints about inaction and argued that the locks could play a far greater role in reducing drunken driving.

"This could be used on a lot more widespread scale to start having an impact on our statistics," he said.

Wong said she orders the device installed in all mandated cases, unless the defendant "tells me he does not own a car or does not regularly drive someone else's car," or does not plan to drive again until completing drunken driving school.

In those cases, she said, "if I order it, it's kind of silly."

But in those cases, the court can only take defendants at their word, she acknowledged.

"That's the bottom line in criminal court: We don't have investigators, we don't have any way to verify this."

Reed said his ignition interlock franchise in Petaluma, Glenn's Auto & Truck Repair, has put in 149 devices since 2000, far fewer than half the number that records show county judges have ordered.

That, Reed said, raises another question: "Where's the follow-up to make sure the court orders are fulfilled?"

That question cuts to the issue's heart, said David Hamilton, a Santa Rosa attorney whose clients include people charged with drunken driving.

"Who's going to supervise it?" asked Hamilton, who was a Sonoma County deputy probation officer for 27 years.

"The conservative part of me says, 'We need this on every car,'" he said. But "the defense attorney part of me" leans toward a different conclusion.

"The more serious offenders, the people with three, four, five, six (DUI convictions) I'd say absolutely, those people are a danger on the road."

But for less persistent offenders, he said, alcohol treatment and 12-step programs are better ways to address the problem of drunken driving.

The ignition locks, typically ordered for a year, cost upward of $150 to install and $69 more in monthly lease fees.

The cost leads people "to take shortcuts," Hamilton said, like driving other people's cars.

"If someone doesn't own a car registered to them, its pretty hard to order an interlock to be installed," he said.

Gomez said the law prohibits anyone ordered to install an ignition lock from driving without one, regardless of who owns the car.

But, she said, "the only time we find out is if they are caught doing something else that they aren't supposed to be doing."

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