New Tech Push Against Drunken Driving

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You have a few drinks, climb behind the wheel of your car, turn the key and — nothing. The engine doesn't turn over, the car doesn't move.

If Mothers Against Drunk Driving has its way, a device that checks a driver's alcohol levels will be mandatory in cars owned by anyone ever convicted of drunk driving, and, eventually, every automobile.

New Mexico already has such a law.

MADD, backed by a national association of state highway officials and car manufacturers, is announcing a campaign to change drunken driving laws in the other 49 states to require such devices for first-time offenders.

"We'll focus on that problem of separating the drunk driver from the vehicle," MADD president Glynn Birch told CBS Radio News.

About 13,000 people die each year in automobile crashes in which a driver was legally drunk. But the threat of arrest and punishment, for decades the primary tactic against drunken drivers, is no longer working.

"We've seen no progress in 10 years; we're completely stalled," Susan A. Ferguson, a researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told The New York Times.

The Times reports that California alone has about a million people driving with suspended or revoked licenses, according to Governors Highway Safety Association chairman Christopher J. Murphy.

Still, various groups and the federal Department of Transportation were announcing an enforcement campaign against drunken drivers. According to The Times, the Bush administration also is expected to announce its support for research into the devices, although it has not yet decided whether to push for wider adoption of New Mexico's approach.

There are nearly 1.5 million drunken driving arrests last year, but only 100,000 ignition interlocks are currently in use, so even tagging first offenders isn't really enough, says MADD.

"Generally, it's been proven that they will drive an estimated 88 times before they're caught the very first time for their first offense," Birch said.

Many states already require the ignition interlock devices for people who have been convicted several times. New Mexico, as of last year, is the only state to require them for first offenders. With that tactic and others, the state saw an 11.3 percent decrease in alcohol-related fatalities last year — and the rule only went into effect in mid-June.

"It is an integral part of our success," Gov. Bill Richardson told The Times.

Other states saw even greater decreases after requiring the interlocks.

"There are going to be different types of technology, such as trans-dermal detection that will have sensors to detect the blood alcohol level of an individual before he starts the car, so it doesn't allow the car to start," said Birch.

Another system has a Breathalyzer tube that the driver must blow into before starting the car, The Times reports. A third detects that a car is weaving down the road, and possible driven by an impaired driver.

"Biometric detection or identification will work like a thumbprint to identify and also give us an idea of who the driver is," Birch said.

Ferguson of the IIHS said the best systems will work automatically, without the need for the driver to submit to a test — or come up with ways to circumvent it.

"We don't want the soccer mom dropping kids off, going to the grocery store and the preschool, and having to blow into something every time," she said.

Those systems might eventually test all drivers, whether or not they have ever been convicted of drunken driving.

Both automobile manufacturers and liquor companies, through their trade associations, support ignition interlocks to some extent. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers helped a New Mexico task force establish that state's program, and favors the early use of the devices.

The Century Council, representing distillers, says it favors the New Mexico approach for first offenders, but only those caught with blood-alcohol levels far above the legal threshold.
  • Lloyd Vries

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