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Keeping the drunk driver off the road

Lawmakers ponder requiring alcohol detection devices for convicted offenders.

May 24, 2008|Ken Bensinger | Times Staff Writer
  • Ignition interlock devices, like this one made by Smart Start, can be installed in the cars of those convicted of drunk driving. They prevent a car from starting if alcohol is detected on the driver's breath.
Ignition interlock devices, like this one made by Smart Start, can be installed… (Smart Start Inc. )

Should convicted drunk drivers be forced to pass an alcohol breath test before starting their cars? Should everyone?

For more than 20 years, special breathalyzers -- hard-wired to a car's ignition to prevent the vehicle from starting if alcohol is detected -- have been installed under judicial order in the cars of repeat, or especially egregious, alcohol offenders. But in the last few years, six states have passed laws that require the devices, called ignition interlocks, in the cars of everyone convicted of driving under the influence.

Now, several more states, including California, are considering making interlocks mandatory for all offenders. A bill could pass the state Assembly next week. And a group of automakers has launched a major project with the federal government to develop advanced technologies that could someday make alcohol detectors a standard feature in all cars.

Advocates of interlocks, particularly Mothers Against Drunk Driving, say the devices could reduce the nation's estimated 17,000 annual alcohol-related automotive fatalities, and thereby ease the burden that drunk driving places on the nation's criminal justice system.

"We would like to have all 50 states applying it for all convicted drunk drivers," said MADD Chief Executive Chuck Hurley. He said there had been no significant drop in alcohol-related fatalities in more than a decade. "This is the best way of keeping alcohol off the road."

Critics, led by the American Beverage Institute and lawyers specializing in DUI defense, contend that ignition interlocks aren't as effective as claimed and are a burdensome invasion of privacy. The institute represents restaurants such as Outback Steakhouse and Chili's.

This month, the beverage institute ran full-page ads in USA Today and the New York Times showing mug shots of celebrities convicted of drunk driving, including Lindsay Lohan and Kiefer Sutherland, saying that interlocks should be used only for "hard-core drunk drivers."

"This is an effort to educate the public about the threat of universally mandated ignition interlocks," said Sarah Longwell, managing director of the institute.

Her group worries that laws requiring the devices for all convicted drunk drivers would discourage consumers from having a drink at dinner, costing the restaurant industry untold sums of money.

(Other alcohol-related trade groups, including the Beer Institute and the National Beer Wholesalers Assn., said they supported such devices. The Distilled Spirits Council said it was asked by the American Beverage Institute to participate in the current campaign but it declined.)

Beyond financial concerns, Longwell said, this is about individual liberties. "We're trying to get people to look 10 years down the road and realize what this could mean."

Susan Ferguson, program manager of the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, a five-year, $10-million project funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and automakers including Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp., said the research could very well mean alcohol detectors will become a standard option in every car.

To date, Ferguson said, no country has a universal ignition interlock mandate, and Sweden, the only one to attempt such a law, seems unlikely to get permission from the European Union.

"We don't see any regulatory activity that would put this in all cars in the U.S.," she said.

Instead, as-yet-undeveloped technologies, which could use retina scans or skin spectrometry, would be the kind of thing carmakers install as a non-mandated safety feature, like side air bags, and would be unnoticeable to the driver. However, once such a device is installed, its use probably would not be optional.

In the past, the public has been resistant to laws that require some safety equipment. In 1973, NHTSA promulgated a rule requiring the use of devices that would prevent cars from starting if the driver's seat belt was not engaged. It was revoked amid public protest.

Last year Nissan Motor Co. revealed a concept car that incorporated an arrangement of alcohol sensors, including one built into the gearshift. "You wouldn't even know it was there," Ferguson said.

At the moment, that's far from the case. As of August, there were 134,000 ignition interlocks employed in 45 states, a number that's grown substantially since 2005, when New Mexico passed the first law mandating interlocks for first offenders.

The devices, manufactured by fewer than a dozen companies, are installed at the user's expense and must be breathed into before the car can start.

The user leases the device for a monthly fee, typically about $65, and must take it to a technician every two months to get it recalibrated. The blood-alcohol sensitivity is generally set around 0.03%. That's well below the legal limit of 0.08%; convicted drunk drivers are prohibited from driving with any alcohol in their blood.

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