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A new strategy to discourage driving drunk (2006-11-20)
The threat of arrest and punishment, for decades the primary tactic against drunken drivers, is no longer working in the struggle to reduce the death toll, officials say, and they are proposing turning to technology — alcohol detection devices in every vehicle — to address the problem.
In the first phase of the plan, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, backed by a national association of state highway officials and car manufacturers, will announce here on Monday a campaign to change drunken driving laws in 49 states to require that even first offenders install a device that tests drivers and shuts down the car if it detects alcohol.
Many states already require the devices, known as ignition interlocks, for people who have been convicted several times. Last year New Mexico became the first to make them mandatory after a first offense. With that tactic and others, the state saw an 11.3 percent drop in alcohol-related fatalities last year.
New Mexico was not the only state to record a decline in alcohol-related motoring deaths, and several states showed even bigger drops. For example, from 2004 to 2005, Maryland showed a decrease to 235 from 286, or 17.8 percent. In New Mexico, which has had a chronic problem with drunken driving, state officials cited the new rule on interlocks as a significant factor in their campaign to cut the fatality rate. The rule did not take effect until June 17, 2005.
“It is an integral part of our success,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who thinks others should follow his state’s lead.
Advocates for interlocks acknowledge that they are not foolproof. They can be easily circumvented if a sober person blows into the Breathalyzer tube, for instance.
Officials say interlocks for first offenders are not a panacea but will reduce repeat offenses. They say the next step will be a program to develop devices to unobtrusively test every driver for alcohol and disable the vehicle. The automaker Saab and a medical equipment company already have devices that may be adapted for that job.
Statistics show that about 13,000 people die each year in car crashes in which a driver was legally drunk.
“We’ve seen no progress in 10 years; we’re completely stalled,” said Susan A. Ferguson, a researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Ms. Ferguson said the most promising technologies would work automatically, like air bags. “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.
Chuck Hurley, the chief executive of MADD, said that automatic sensors might be used first in fleets, and that eventually insurance companies might give discounts on coverage to drivers who had them.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers helped a New Mexico task force appointed by Mr. Richardson, a Democrat, to develop its program, and supports early use of ignition interlocks, a spokesman said. So does the Governors Highway Safety Association, said its chairman, Christopher J. Murphy.
Mr. Murphy said the typical penalty, revoking a drunken driver’s license, did not work because offenders continued to drive anyway; California alone has about one million people driving with suspended or revoked licenses, he said.
He also supports unobtrusive alcohol sensing in all cars. “When 40 percent of all our crashes are alcohol-involved,” he said, “I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult of a sell.”
On Monday, the groups and the Department of Transportation also plan to announce an enforcement campaign aimed at drunken drivers.
Even the Century Council, a trade association of liquor distillers, says it favors the New Mexico approach for first offenders, but only those caught with blood-alcohol levels far above the legal threshold.
Bush administration officials will also endorse research into the use of passive devices for alcohol detection, other participants in the announcement said, but have not decided whether to push for wider adoption of the New Mexico approach.
Two companies have introduced products that hint at future strategies. Saab, which is owned by General Motors, is testing in Sweden a Breathalyzer that attaches to a key chain and will prevent a car from starting if it senses too much alcohol. Taxi companies and other fleet owners are the target market, the company said.
A New Mexico company, TruTouch Technologies, is modifying a technique developed for measuring blood chemistry in diabetics and using it to measure alcohol instead. The appliance shines a light through the skin on the forearm and analyzes what bounces back.
Future devices may read alcohol content when a driver’s palm touches the steering wheel or the gear shift lever, said Jim McNally, the chief executive of TruTouch.
A national campaign against drunken driving began a quarter-century ago with President Ronald Reagan, and the death toll was cut by about 40 percent through a change in public attitudes and an increase in the legal drinking age. But over the past decade, the number of deaths has not changed.
“We have to begin looking at some new, innovative ways to begin to bring this terrible number down,” said Mark V. Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The board has not studied the question of installing interlocks after a first offense, but using them more widely may be more useful than traditional penalties, Mr. Rosenker said. “I’ve always been of the belief we’re looking for a result,” he said. “What is the best way to achieve that result? Punishment doesn’t always do it.”
Troy W. Prichard, a lawyer in Albuquerque who defends people arrested on drunken driving charges, said interlocks for first offenders could be appropriate, or could be excessive.
“There could be the responsible guy that just lapses that one time,” Mr. Prichard said. “Getting the handcuffs put on him might be all that guy needed to know not to do it again.” But, he said, “another guy, it may be his first and he’s on the road to 12.”
MADD’s first step is modeled in part on the approach taken in Canada beginning in 1991, where licenses were taken from drivers convicted of driving drunk but given back sooner if they agreed to the ignition interlock. The objective, said Andrew Murie, the chief executive of MADD Canada, is to “keep them in the licensing system, so you know who they are and where they are, keep them insured and stop them from drinking and driving.”
“The interlock does all three of those things,” Mr. Murie said.
In the United States, drivers required to have ignition interlocks get new licenses that mention the restriction in big letters. The interlocks are rented from contractors who install them and charge about $2 a day. The devices can be set up to transmit reports to probation officers, but to the dismay of some safety experts, not all jurisdictions use that data.
Source: www.NYTimes.com • Matthew L. Wald
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