What Happens If I Fail My Interlock Test?

December 12, 2018

Drunk driving isn’t just an individual crime. It affects everyone around you. Based on data from 2010, drunk driving accidents cost the country an estimated $44 billion every year. But the effects of drunk driving can still be measured by its human costs. Today, an estimated 29 people are killed in drunk driving accidents every day, averaging out to about one death every 50 minutes. Data from 2016 shows that about one in six children were killed in alcohol-impaired driving incidents.

State and federal governments have developed a variety of measures to effectively quell alcohol-impaired driving and reduce the deaths, injuries, and property damage caused by drunk driving accidents. Further enforcement of 0.08 percent BAC limits and zero tolerance laws has been increasingly effective, along with sobriety checkpoints and community-based health promotion.

Ignition Interlock devices have become one of the most integral tools in the fight against drunk driving. Studies have found that they are particularly effective in preventing repeat DUI offenses, reducing recidivism by 15 to 65 percent. Ignition interlock devices are easier to use than you think, but the most common question among those required to install an ignition interlock device is “what happens if I fail my interlock test?”. We’re here to clear things up for you. Read on to learn more.

What is an Ignition Interlock Device?

Once reserved for more severe DUI cases and infringements, ignition interlocks (or car breathalyzers)  have now become much more common. Many states require the use of ignition interlock devices even for first-time DUI offenses, while other states provide incentives to first-time DUI offenders who volunteer for ignition interlock devices.

Ignition interlock devices connect to your car’s ignition system, acting as a mediator. In order to start your vehicle, you have to blow into the mouthpiece of the device, which measures your blood alcohol content via your breath. The device has a programmed BAC limit, which differs from state to state but is usually set around 0.02 percent. If the device reads that your BAC is below that limit, you can start your car as you normally would and get on the road.

How You Can Fail

You have two chances to fail: during the initial breath test when you start your ignition and periodically on your drive during rolling retests. When you fail your initial breath test, the device is designed to prevent you from getting in your car and starting it for either a set amount of time or until you provide a breath sample that is clean.

Rolling retests are designed to prevent you from getting someone else to breathe into your device to start your car. During the rolling retest, the device will alert you to submit a breath sample. Most devices will give you several minutes, allowing you to submit a sample when it is safe to do so. If you don’t provide a sample within the set period of time or have a breath sample that exceeds the programmed limit, the car will log the event and sound an alarm (honk your horn and flash your lights) until you pull over, stop your engine, and provide a clean sample.

Measuring Alcohol Through Your Breath

When you drink alcohol, it gets absorbed into your bloodstream via your mouth, throat, intestines, and stomach. Alcohol actually stays chemically resilient and unchanged in your bloodstream, which is why it’s so easy to measure in your blood. Your blood alcohol content or concentration refers to the measure of alcohol in grams per every 100 milliliters of blood. To put into context, a BAC of 0.07 percent means you have 0.07 grams of alcohol for every 100 milliliters of blood. However, drawing your own blood and testing it is cumbersome and probably not something you want to deal with just to start your car.

Thankfully, your blood alcohol concentration can also be measured through your breath. As your travels over your lungs, some of the alcohol actually ends up in the tiny sacs dotting the entirety of your lungs. Alcohol is highly volatile, meaning that it can evaporate very easily. When your alveoli fill up with alcohol, every exhale will show some concentration of alcohol that is coincidentally related to the amount of blood actually in your blood. About 2,100 milliliters of alveolar air contains as much alcohol as 1 milliliter of your blood.

How Ignition Interlock Devices Work

Modern breathalyzers and ignition interlock devices use the same general fuel cell mechanism to measure your blood alcohol content This fuel cell comprises of two platinum electrodes that surround a porous acid electrolyte. While blowing into the device, your breath passes through a platinum electrode, which oxidizes any alcohol in your breath and turns it into electrons, protons, and acetic acid. The electrons begin to flow through a wire connected to the other platinum electrode and an electric current meter. The protons combine with oxygen and electrons to form water. Essentially, the more alcohol that gets oxidized, the higher the electric current levels. Microchips can then read the electric current and calculate the blood alcohol concentration.

Why You Might Fail Your Ignition Interlock Device Test

The most obvious answer here is that you have alcohol in your system. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re stepping into your vehicle after drinking at the bar. A general rule of thumb states that it takes about one hour for your liver to fully metabolize one standard drink of alcohol. In the United States, a standard drink comprises about 14 grams of pure ethyl alcohol. In terms of actual drinks that equates to about:

  • 1.5 ounces of whiskey, rum, tequila, and other distilled spirits
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor
  • 12 ounces of regular beer

Of course, not all places of business pour the exact same amount, nor are all beer types exactly the same. Even more complex, not everyone metabolizes alcohol at the exact same rate. You and your friend could have the exact same drink, in the exact same amount and exact same time, and have vastly different blood alcohol concentrations.

If you drink more than one drink per hour, your liver is unable to take all of that alcohol at once. Your body instead stores the alcohol in your blood and muscle tissue until your liver can get to it. If you have been drinking a lot, your body can take a great deal of time before it can completely break down all that alcohol. That means that you could go to be drunk and wake up with alcohol still in your system. Sleep does not reset your system. A late night of drinking and early waking could mean that you still have some alcohol in your blood, even if you feel completely sober. The ignition interlock device could detect this alcohol and log the test as a failure.

Many people also believe that mouthwash can affect your IID test results. It’s true that many brands of mouthwash use alcohol, which your ignition interlock device can absolutely detect. However, mouthwash will only cause a fail if you don’t allow enough time between using the mouthwash and blowing into your device. Unless you’re using your mouthwash in your car, you should be fine. However, if you’re still worried, rinse your mouth with water after using mouthwash and you shouldn’t have any problems.

Ignition interlock devices themselves are incredibly accurate. Every IID that gets manufactured has to meet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s strict standards. On top of that, ignition interlock devices have to undergo monthly maintenance and calibration to ensure that they provide accurate readings and are free of any tampering.

Aside from rare exceptions, the reason you failed is more than likely because you were drinking before you stepped into your car.

What Happens When You Fail?

The immediate effect of failing your ignition interlock device test or rolling retest is that you won’t be able to drive for a certain period of time. Your device records just about every interaction, including successful and failed tests and your BAC levels at the time. Some devices even contain GPS and cameras, allowing for exact location data and photos to verify who is using the device at any given time. These logs are regularly sent to your monitoring authority, who may include the court, your parole or probation officer, or your state’s licensing agency. Depending on your device, these logs can be sent immediately through wireless technology or every month during your device’s maintenance and calibration.

In terms of legal punishments, things can get a little hazier. Laws vary from state to state. While some states may be more lenient with an individual test failure, others may issue penalties after one failure. Repeat and frequent test failures are a huge deal and can result in severe penalties, including prison time, fines, and a revocation of your restricted license.

Remember that ignition interlock devices are designed to prevent alcohol-impaired driving. Although it can be troublesome and potentially lead to legal penalties, a test failure protects you and everyone on the road. The best way to avoid test failures is to avoid drinking alcohol before you get behind the wheel. If you do want to drink, make sure you plan ahead. Designate a sober driver, use public transit, or call a cab. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble and money.


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