2009-06-11 / General Stories

Support Grows for Alcohol Interlocks on Cars

A campaign to stop drunken driving by putting some form of alcohol interlock in every new car is picking up support.

As Congress considers highway spending for next year, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers suggested spending $30 million a year on developing devices that would sense alcohol in a driver. The idea comes from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and is also backed by the auto insurance industry and a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But the American Beverage Institute, a trade group that represents restaurants that serve "adult beverages," argued that the devices will be so sensitive that they will stop a car from starting if the driver had just one drink.

The problem, as stated by MADD, is that many accidents are caused by drunken drivers who have never been arrested. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated that in 2007, if anyone with a blood alcohol level of .08 or higher could have been prevented from starting a vehicle; almost 9,000 lives would have been saved. If those who had one or more convictions for driving while intoxicated could have been stopped from driving if they had any trace of alcohol, that would have saved only 1,100 lives, the group said.

There are about 1 million drunkendriving convictions a year, and about 145,000 result in installation of interlocks which connect a breathalyzer to the ignition system to keep the car from starting if the breath indicates alcohol.

No one is proposing a breathalyzer in every car. The auto and insurance industries are already involved in a cooperative research program to develop passive monitoring systems. Blood alcohol can be measured by bouncing light, in the near-infrared wavelength, off the skin of a driver. It can also be measured by the sweat on the skin, or by analyzing eye movements.

At a hearing on Monday of the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee, the auto manufacturers' vice president for vehicle safety, Robert Strassburger, cited figures from New Mexico, which mandates interlocks after a first drunken-driving conviction. Alcohol-involved crashes in New Mexico are down 30 percent, injuries 32 percent and fatalities 22 percent, he said.

Jeffrey W. Runge, a former emergency room physician and former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also testified at the hearing and voiced support for the idea of federal money to develop new technologies.

In a statement, Sarah Longwell, managing director of the beverage group, said, "Auto manufacturers have a history of playing nice with MADD to avoid being criticized, singled out and targeted for new regulation.

"The universal application of ignition interlocks would effectively eliminate millions of Americans' ability to have a glass of wine with dinner, a beer at a ball game or a champagne toast at a wedding and drive home," she said.

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