Coming Soon: A Breathalyzer in Every Car?

Coming Soon: A Breathalyzer in Every Car?

Nearly 13,000 Americans die in traffic accidents every year. Now Mothers Against Drunk Driving is opening a new front in its war on drunk drivers, and it’s getting help from the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

A new highway bill pending before Congress would instruct all 50 states to require all motorists convicted of driving under the influence to equip their cars with interlock systems that shut down a vehicle when a measured amount of alcohol is detected.

There are already about 150,000 interlock systems now in cars in the U.S., placed there for drivers with multiple DUI convictions. But the proposed mandate would expand the use of interlock systems exponentially; MADD’s statistics indicate that nearly 1.5 million Americans are arrested annually on DUI charges, making it the No. 1 crime for which Americans are arrested.

States wouldn’t have to abide by the ruling, but there would be heavy pressure to conform, since states that don’t adopt the mandate could lose their highway funds. “The national 21 minimum drinking age and the .08% law [for allowable alcohol in the bloodstream] both resulted from federal highway sanctions. History tells us that this approach works,” says Laura Dean-Mooney of MADD. So far only 11 states require interlocks for anyone with one conviction who is currently driving on a DUI-restricted license.

Opponents of the MADD push for stricter laws warn that a federal interlock requirement would serve as a Trojan horse, opening the way for even more sophisticated interlock technology that would be required on every car sold in the U.S., according to Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, which lobbies on behalf of taverns and restaurants. “If you go to the ball game and happen to have a beer you wouldn’t be able drive home,” she says.

Like those “Objects may be closer …” warnings on outside car mirrors, opponents warn that brave new technology may be nearer than it appears. Nissan is now testing various systems that don’t even require a Breathalyzer to detect drinking. One system uses a tiny camera to observe facial expressions, another system being tested checks blood alcohol levels though sensors when the driver grasps the shift control and a third system uses the car’s internal computer to calculate if a motorist is steering erratically. Ford already has a system that allows parents to limit the speed of a vehicle driven by a youthful motorist, and Mercedes-Benz’s new E-Class comes with a system that issues an audible warning if the driver gets drowsy.

MADD president Chuck Hurley doesn’t deny he would like to see such systems put into service, but says wider use of such technology is 10 years off, and MADD isn’t calling for automakers to install it now. Current Breathalyzer technology, he said, would make a big difference almost immediately. In New Mexico, for example, DUI fatalities have been reduced 35% since the state began requiring all convicted DUI offenders to use an ignition interlock device. “Studies have shown alcohol ignition interlocks to be effective in reducing recidivism,” concurs Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In continuing to look for ways to curb drunk driving, MADD is emphasizing its negative economic impact. MADD estimates that drunk driving now accounts for 18% of the nation’s auto-insurance bill and 20% of all emergency-room costs that are never reimbursed, as well as 16% of all probation costs and 6% of all jail cells used in the U.S.

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