A national campaign to require first-time drunken-driving offenders to install ignition interlock devices in their cars got a boost last week. The nation’s top transportation safety experts said the best way to keep impaired drivers off the road is to make them prove they’re sober before starting their engines.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the group that rose to national prominence in the 1980s with its campaign for nationwide drunken-driving standards, hailed the recommendation from the National Transportation Safety Board as a “milestone.”
But the idea of pre-emptive sobriety tests is drawing resistance from the alcoholic beverage and restaurant industries, which worry that Breathalyzer and ignition interlock mandates for first offenders are too restrictive and would be bad for business.
“You wouldn’t punish someone driving five miles over the speed limit the same way you would punish a driver going 15 miles over,” said American Beverage Institute Managing Director Sarah Longwell, who added that the trade group supports ignition interlock devices for repeat or flagrant violators.
The issue is shaping up as one of the biggest fights over highway safety in the next Congress. Lawmakers included a provision in the recently enacted surface transportation law (PL 112-141) that authorized $20 million to help states with first-time offender interlock laws offset enforcement costs. Now groups such as MADD want Congress to take the next step and enact legislation to withhold federal highway aid to states that lack the stricter standards.
“The first step to address the No. 1 killer on our roadways is to do what is proven to be effective: use interlocks for all DWI offenders,” NTSB Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said last week, in announcing the board’s recommendation.
“Technology is the game-changer in reducing alcohol-related crashes on our nation’s roadways,” she said. “Achieving zero alcohol-impaired driving-related deaths is possible only if society is willing to separate the impaired driver from the driving task.”
Ignition interlocks require a driver to use a Breathalyzer or other test of alcohol impairment to start up a vehicle. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring severe or repeat drunken-driving offenders to install the devices, but just 17 — along with four California counties — mandate ignition locks for first offenders, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. First-time offender interlock legislation is set to take effect next year in Missouri.
Lawmakers hoped that incentives included in the surface transportation law will entice states to enact first-offender interlock laws. A similar approach has been effective in encouraging other highway safety initiatives, such as state laws that gradually phase in driving responsibilities for teenage motorists as they gain more experience.
But in other cases, the federal government has wielded a stick — the threat of cuts in highway aid — to push states to enact highway safety measures, such as the 21-year-old minimum drinking age and, more recently, the reduction in the blood-alcohol level that constitutes legal intoxication to 0.08 percent. Supporters plan to fight for language in the next surface transportation bill that would penalize states without ignition interlock requirements for first-time drunken-driving offenders.
Longwell said that would not only be damaging to restaurants and bars but would also be expensive. Offenders are responsible for the cost of installing the equipment and regular calibrations. Device-related costs alone run about $75 a month for users of one popular brand.
And the American Beverage Institute cites figures provided by the American Probation and Parole Association that estimated it would cost $432 million annually to enforce a nationwide interlock law for first-time offenders.
Longwell of the American Beverage Institute said an even bigger concern for her organization is that interlock devices will become standard equipment for all vehicles, not just those operated by convicted drunken drivers.
The surface transportation bill authorized another $24 million through fiscal 2014 to help fund research for the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety program, which is developing seamless, built-in technology that could test driver sobriety before allowing the vehicle to start.
Longwell said that would make “responsible social drinking before driving a thing of the past.”