SASKATOON -- Saskatchewan saw an all-time high of vehicles equipped with breathalyzers last year.

“There are more than 2,500 active ignition interlock clients right now in Saskatchewan,” according to SGI media relations manager Tyler McMurchy. “It allows people to drive after an impaired driving offence but it also ensures they are driving safe.”

An ignition interlock is a breathalyzer hardwired into a vehicle.

In order for the operator to drive, the ignition interlock requires the driver to provide a sober breath sample to start the vehicle.

According to SGI, once the vehicle is running, the device will ask for other breath samples at random times.

If you don’t give a breath sample when required or the device detects alcohol, the device will record a warning. The device records the warning in the device event log and, where applicable, records the blood alcohol content. The device will then activate an alarm until you give an acceptable breath sample or disable the vehicle.

In 2015 the provincial government made the ignition interlock program mandatory for all impaired driving offenders. In its first year the program saw 1,415 ignition interlock systems installed in vehicles. The number peaked at 1,536 in 2016. In 2020 it fell to 1,088 new installations.

In total SGI has seen 8,519 ignition interlock systems installed.

Criminal defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle, who handles impairted driving cases in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, said Saskatchewan is the toughest on impaired driving offences.

Penalties include thousand-dollar fines, the installation, monitoring and removal of the ignition interlock systems as well as the administration and reinstatement costs of getting back on the road.

“I think we’re doing it right here in Saskatchewan where some other provinces are not,” Pfefferle said.

McMurchy added the minimum cost following an impaired driving conviction comes in at $1,350 and it could cost a person more depending on how long the driver is required to have an ignition interlock system, as it varies between the number of offences and seriousness of offences.

According to SGI, the length of time a driver may be ordered to have an ignition interlock system for exceeding 0.08 is one year for a first offence, three years for a second offence and 10 years for a third offence.

“Every month in Saskatchewan we see 250-400 Criminal Code charges related to impaired driving and many of those will result in convictions so those people will be eventually ending up in the ignition interlock program,” McMurchy said.

Pfefferle said the ignition interlock program is also a method to have a convicted impaired driver return behind the wheel sooner than the mandated driving suspension imposed by the courts.

If the court imposes a two-year driving suspension, it’s two years with the exception of being allowed to drive a vehicle with an ignition interlock breathalyzer.

“You can apply to SGI to get a blow-box and as long as you have it installed with their permission you can drive that vehicle as long as you are compliant with SGI’s rules even though you are subject to a prohibition from the court,” Pfefferle said.

According to Smart Start Canada, the company SGI uses to install the ignition interlock breathalyzers, the annual cost to the driver is about $600 including installation, monitoring and removal.