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New roadblocks to drunk driving

The decline in alcohol-related deaths has stalled, spurring high-tech strategies.

December 18, 2006|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

On the state Capitol steps, representatives from national traffic safety organizations, law enforcement groups and health advocates will gather Tuesday to deliver a warning to holiday revelers: If you drink, don't drive.

The message has a distinctly familiar ring, but that's where similarities to past drunk-driving campaigns end. This year has marked a seismic shift in efforts by law enforcement groups, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other safety organizations to halt the behavior that accounts for 39% of traffic deaths.

Alcohol-related traffic fatalities fell dramatically between 1982 and about 1994, largely due to the efforts of MADD as well as laws to lower the drunk-driving limit to a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 milligrams per 100 milliliters of blood.

But that trend has stalled. Since 1994, alcohol-related driving fatalities in the United States have plateaued at around 17,000 per year, and, in California, between 2004 and 2005 they inched upward.

Traffic-safety advocates say they have stepped up efforts to stop drunk driving, but have not made much progress, says Susan Ferguson, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit, scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing crashes on the nation's highways. "It was time to revisit this," Ferguson says.

The most obvious change -- one that will be visible to many people over the upcoming holiday season -- is widespread sobriety checkpoints. A similar nationwide crackdown during Labor Day, the largest ever, involved 11,500 law enforcement agencies and an $11-million publicity campaign. (The effect of that effort on accident statistics is still being assessed.)

But other innovative ideas to eliminate drunk driving are also under review. Last month, MADD announced what it calls an "audacious" campaign to end drunk driving largely through harnessing new technology that may someday make it impossible to start a car when the driver has had too much to drink.

Hitting a plateau

Drunk driving has been transformed from "something that was normal behavior in 1980, and even a joke on late-night television, to something that is socially unacceptable but tolerated," says MADD chief executive Chuck Hurley. "What we're trying to do is move the issue to 'not tolerated.' "

Far too many drunk drivers still traverse the nation's roadways, Hurley says. According to the FBI, 1.4 million driving under the influence (DUI) arrests were made last year. Studies show that on average, those who drive while drunk make about 50 car trips while intoxicated before getting caught. Even after they're arrested, Ferguson says, many still drink and drive.

That realization, along with a lack of progress in reducing DUI fatalities and injuries, prompted the renewed focus.

MADD has called for increased law enforcement activity and much wider use of technology, such as ignition interlocks, which make it impossible to operate a vehicle while intoxicated. Such interlocks have been available for many years but are beginning to attract new interest.

The devices, in which a Breathalyzer is linked to the vehicle's ignition system, are most often ordered by judges for repeated DUI offenders as a condition of probation after the driver's license has been reinstated. But fewer than 10% of convicted drunk drivers (about 100,000) receive one each year.

MADD is pushing for the use of interlocks for all convicted first-time offenders, a move that the organization estimates could save 1,600 lives a year. Last year, New Mexico became the first state in the nation to enact such legislation. The state has experienced a 20% decline in alcohol-related fatalities since then, Hurley says. Preliminary discussions involving MADD and state lawmakers have begun in California regarding a similar interlock bill.

Through such expanded legislation, MADD hopes to get a vastly increased number -- 500,000 to 700,000 -- of the devices fitted to the cars of convicted drunk drivers within the next five years, Hurley says.

In turn, the increased use of interlocks is expected to pave the way for devices that would be installed in all new cars to help prevent drunk driving. A blue ribbon panel was launched this year by MADD and major traffic safety organizations to explore the issue.

Unlike interlocks, which are conspicuous and require frequent calibration, technology for the average driver would need to be moderately priced, reliable, unobtrusive and set at the legal blood-alcohol concentration, proponents say.

A less-intrusive Breathalyzer is one possibility. Saab automobile in Sweden is testing what it calls an Alcokey -- a miniature alcohol-sensing device on the car's key fob (the security hardware device that is built into most conventional car keys). When the driver presses the "door open" button on the key, the alcohol sensor also switches on. The driver then blows into a small mouthpiece at the end of the fob to provide a breath sample linked to the car's engine.

Noninvasive options

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