Share this story...
Latest News

How many ‘ticking time bomb’ drunk drivers in Washington?

Washington State Patrol troopers make about 40,000 arrests every year for drunk driving. (File photo by Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian)

“In the blink of an eye, a family was destroyed,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says after a drunk driver killed two grandparents this week and critically injured a mother and her newborn son. “It is a senseless loss and a tragic reminder that our society has a long way to go to eliminate the danger posed by impaired drivers.”

Washington State Patrol troopers do their best to stop drunk drivers, but even they admit for every car they pull over there are an unknown number of people careening down the highway like a “ticking time bomb.”

WSP Trooper Denny Stumph says they make about 40,000 arrests every year, statewide, for drunk driving but “there are numerous other people out there driving around who don’t get stopped or arrested.”

It’s hard to know how many drunk drivers are on the state’s roads, he says, but troopers estimate for every driver they catch perhaps 100 don’t get stopped.

On average, a drunk driver has been on the road at least 80 times before getting caught.

For the drunk drivers who end up in the court system 43,000 have been ordered to have an alcohol ignition-interlock device placed on their vehicle.

Department of Licensing records show only about 26,000 of those people actually have the interlock system installed, according to The Seattle Times.

Stumph, who is with WSP’s ignition-interlock program, says more people are voluntarily having the devices installed – often parents with teenage drivers or a spouse who agrees to use one to “save a marriage.” In those cases, the system works well. But, most people with interlocks are not using them by choice.

“If somebody’s been convicted for a DUI, in lieu of a license suspension, they can agree to have an interlock put in,” Stumph says. “A first time will have a year commitment to that.”

The interlocks are about the size of a phone and are connected under the dash through the ignition system.

“They’re designed to trigger, or separate the ignition starting system if alcohol is detected in the device,” he says. “If it’s a clean blow with no alcohol, then it’ll connect and allow the car to be started.”

When the devices were first introduced, they weren’t as sophisticated and an air compressor could blow into the interlock to start the car.

Another person used to be able to blow into the mouthpiece to start it for the problem driver, but now a second test goes off within five minutes and there are random tests after that. Just this year, the state also allowed cameras to be added to record who started the vehicle.

Stumph says while the system has improved, it’s only effective though if a person wants to stop their drunk driving behavior.

“There are ways around it. Somebody has to want to be helped,” he says.

The driver who is allegedly responsible for Monday’s fatal accident in North Seattle was supposed to have been using an ignition-interlock device.

Mark Mullan, 50, faces two counts of vehicular homicide, two counts of vehicular assault and one count of reckless driving.

Judith and Dennis Schulte were killed while crossing a street near Eckstein Middle School in the Wedgwood neighborhood. Their daughter-in-law, Karina Ulriksen-Schulte, and 10-day-old grandson, Elias, are in comas at Harborview Medical Center.

Mullan has three prior convictions for DUI and a pending DUI case in Snohomish County.
If convicted, he faces 15 to 19 years in prison. He remains in jail on $2.5 million bail and is set to be arraigned on April 11.

What is a driver’s chance of facing someone like Mullan on the road?

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates one in three people will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetime.


Related: What to do about a father who regularly drinks and drives

Most Popular