Given the exceptionally harsh winter which we’ve had to endure here in Massachusetts, we probably have been using our windshield wipers more than usual. Melting snow, salt, and sand forces us to use windshield washer fluid to maintain the visibility required for safe driving. Normally, this is not a problem. However, for those who use an ignition interlock device, using windshield washer fluid may land them in trouble with the ignition interlock unit of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles. This is because windshield washer wiper fluid contains 40% methanol, which is an alcohol.
Because they use fuel cells and, unlike true breathalyzers, they do not use infrared spectrometry, ignition interlock devices will misread methanol, the chemical in windshield wiper fluid, for ethanol, the chemical in alcoholic beverages and liquor. This can result in a 10 year or lifetime suspension for an ignition interlock violation. For example, I recently represented a client who re-filled his windshield washer reservoir and left the empty bottle of windshield wiper fluid in the backseat of his vehicle. He inhaled the fumes and vapors which contained methanol and blew into his interlock device. This resulted in approximately a dozen rolling-retest violations, with blood alcohol readings which ranged from .021 to .075. The Registry charged him with numerous ignition interlock violations and he was required to attend an evidentiary hearing where the Registry Hearings Officer questioned him regarding the alleged violations. I represented the client at the hearing and the Registry decided not to revoke his driver’s license. Nevertheless, he had to spend time and money fighting for his license and right to drive.
The Registry imposes severe penalties for ignition interlock violations and the hearing officers have no discretion. If they find that a violation occurred, no matter how minor, they are required to suspend the ignition interlock violator’s license for 10 years or life. There is no gray area or middle ground. To avoid these harsh penalties, Massachusetts ignition interlock users should be careful with windshield washer fluid and try to insure that they’re not inhaling any vapors containing methanol, the chemical which prevents the washer fluid from freezing. Often times, this chemical gets sucked into the passenger compartment by the vehicle’s defroster. One way to prevent the inhalation of methanol is to be careful about the use of the windshield washer and to breathe uncontaminated air from outside of the vehicle immediately prior to taking a rolling re-test. Also, ignition interlock users should not keep unsealed windshield washer fluid bottles in the passenger compartment of their vehicles.