In a move that at one point seemed overcautious, auto manufacturers and policy-makers are exploring installing drunk driving deterrents in every vehicle in an effort to save lives on the road. Some are comparing the concept to laws requiring seatbelts, which at first didn’t seem possible, but have become almost second-nature by most drivers. Others believe the requirement is over-the-top and would not be accepted wide scale by non-offending drivers.
On an annual basis, around 13,000 people die in car accidents caused by drivers with blood alcohol concentrations exceeding the legal limit of .08. Currently, nearly all 50 states require a person found guilty of driving under the influence or driving with an alcohol-related impairment to have an ignition interlocking device installed. Congressional bills may mean that eventually all drivers’ vehicles could come with the device pre-installed, regardless of prior offenses.
Today’s ignition-interlocking devices require a driver to blow into a breathalyzer that will analyze levels of alcohol in the blood and report findings to a computer data system. If the driver has a blood-alcohol concentration level that is considered too high to operate the vehicle, the auto won’t start.
However, new technology (both in the U.S. and Europe) may allow a driver’s skin to be the testing point for alcohol, a tool that would eliminate the breathalyzer approach and perhaps create a smoother, more streamlined method for keeping drunk drivers off the road.
For some people who know they will be tempted by drinking and driving, the devices may be a voluntary measure. Colorado-based photographer and aspiring skier Steven Carter said in a 2006 USA Today article that he installed the device in his car after receiving three convictions for driving under the influence. Carter suggested in the article that insurance providers could prompt more voluntary installations by offering a fee discount for drivers who use them.
The late Barry Sweedler, retired as director of the Office of Safety Recommendations at the National Transportation Safety Board, was in favor of widespread installation of devices like ignition interlocking systems. He encouraged automakers to pre-install the wiring systems for the systems to make the move even easier. Sweedler said that the breathalyzer system may be too cumbersome to require of every driver, but new technologies that require essentially no action from the driver could be a part of every vehicle.
Opponents of mandatory auto breathalyzers say the systems are too expensive and that offenders can find ways to work around them. They also suggest that requiring the devices for all drivers is too intrusive and could pave the way for other laws that restrict non-offending drivers.
Ford and General Motors representatives have been looking into drunk driving deterrents for years, and seem to favor the less-intrusive methods like those that can detect alcohol without checking breath. Volvo automakers, a brand of the Ford company, and General Motors, who make Saab, have explored technologies that have the deterrent system contained in the auto’s key. They have both encouraged systems that do not openly interfere with sober drivers’ activities.
While the question as to whether or not mandatory systems for checking all drivers for alcohol impairment remains, policy-makers and auto manufacturers seem to agree on one point: the heart of the matter lies in saving lives.