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Thousands in Washington wear alcohol-detecting bracelets

A half-pound ankle bracelet, like this one worn by actress Lindsay Lohan, captures alcohol readings every 30 minutes and can detect tampering. Offenders placed on the alcohol-monitoring bracelets pay between $10 and $12 per day for the SCRAM - Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor. ( News Online file photo)

Instead of a slap on the wrist, repeat drunk drivers would have to slap on a bracelet that monitors and reports when they’ve been drinking.

Saying “there are no more free passes for those who choose to drive under the influence,” Governor Jay Inslee and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are considering ways to increase accountability and penalties for DUIs.

One proposal includes a choice of six months jail time or enrollment in a sobriety program on a second offense. The sobriety program involves constantly wearing a device that is able to detect if a person drinks alcohol.

The ankle-monitoring bracelet is called a SCRAM by a Seattle company that provides the devices. That stands for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor.

The half-pound bracelet captures alcohol readings every 30 minutes and can detect tampering.

“Nationally, it’s been on about 300,000 offenders,” says Dan Altvater who represents Alcohol Monitoring Systems in Seattle. “In the state of Washington it started to be used in Spokane in 2005 and since then we have had over 7,000 offenders on SCRAM.

The bracelets use a different technology than the breathalyzer and blood alcohol tests. These bracelets detect alcohol through the skin.

“Transdermal technology has been around for about 100 years. We know the human body can absorb and secrete things through the skin,” Alvater says.

“We’re actually able to take alcohol from the skin run it across a traditional fuel cell and come up with what’s called a transdermal alcohol content. When you smell alcohol coming off someone that is literally ethanol vapor coming off their skin, so that’s what we quantify.”

The bracelets do not detect drug use.

Data from the bracelet is uploaded from a base station the offender keeps in his or her home. They are able to transfer the information without removing the bracelet.

The data is sent to Denver, Colorado where the company has about 150 employees who interpret the data and report back to police, probation staff, or the court supervising the DUI offender.

“The goal is to go after the hard core drunk drivers,” says Alvater. “These offenders have been told not to drink throughout their life, but they’ve never been held accountable. For the first time in their life somebody is saying there will be repercussions.”

He says there are “swift and certain sanctions” for those who try to remove a bracelet or are detected drinking in violation of a court order. Jail time is the most likely consequence.

The program makes the repeat drunk drivers pay the cost of the bracelet system.

Offenders placed on the alcohol-monitoring bracelets pay between $10 and $12 per day for the SCRAM and the costs associated with it. That’s far less than the $125 per day to house an inmate in King County Jail.

“When you look at compliance rates in Washington they mirror what we see nationally, meaning when offenders are on SCRAM they are sober and get through the entire program 77 percent of the time,” Alvater says. “On any given day if you break that data down, 99.3 percent of them are sober each day.”

The legislature hasn’t attached a cost to the proposed legislation – House Bill 2030 and Senate Bill 5912.

When I talked with State Rep. Roger Goodman, who is leading the effort in the legislature, he estimated the proposed legislation to strengthen state DUI laws and penalties would cost between $10 million and $15 million.

State lawmakers are facing about a $1.3 billion budget shortfall and they’re under a state Supreme Court order to increase education funding.

Gov. Inslee acknowledges the cost would not be “insignificant” but he also says “People who choose to get behind the wheel must know that we are done giving them a free pass.”


KIRO Radio’s Tim Haeck contributed to this report.

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