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Curbing drunken drivers: Should ignition interlock be required on every car?

Connecticut motorists convicted of drunken driving are the latest to face mandatory use of ignition interlock devices, a step seen by some as steering the nation closer to requiring alcohol detection systems as standard equipment in all vehicles.

Pushed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Connecticut on Jan. 1 joined 14 other states with ignition-interlock mandates for drivers caught with blood-alcohol content above the legal limit, even for first-time offenders. A similar pilot program is under way in four California counties.


At least 24 other states mandate Breathalyzer-like locks for so-called hard-core drunken drivers who include repeat offenders or those caught with alcohol levels of .15 or more.

MADD

This chart from Mothers Against Drunk Driving shows the status of ignition interlock laws across the country. Legislation is pending for interlock mandates for even first-time offenders in Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Other states leave the penalty of interlock ignitions to the discretion of judges. Some states, such as Nebraska, reduce license revocation periods for convicted motorists who agree to use ignition interlocks.

States in general require convicted motorists to pay for the devices.

NBCConnecticut.com: First-time drunken drivers to get ignition locks

MADD launched its 50-state effort to eliminate drunken driving in 2006, when only one state, New Mexico, mandated ignition interlocks for even first-time drunken drivers, said Frank Harris, MADD’s manager of state legislative affairs.

Previously the focus was on hard-core drunken drivers and suspending their licenses, a punishment ignored by up to 75 percent of convicted motorists, he said.

"It makes me sick to my stomach to see people drive drunk with a BAC of .08 to .14 and not be categorized as hardcore drunk driving offenders," Harris said.

"DUI or DWI laws are very complicated," Harris said. "The ignition interlock is just part of the approach to assure the offender must prove sobriety and assure swift punishment," he said.

The devices are designed to prevent a car from starting if a driver who blows into it has an alcohol level above a certain point. Technological advances – including cameras on the device – make it tougher to get around the systems. People previously thought they could have sober friends blow into the devices to get their cars started.

Legal reforms with ignition-interlock mandates not only reinforce a state’s commitment to halting drunken driving, but also effectively reduce re-arrest rates by 67 percent, said Harris.

The recidivism figure is also cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mandating ignition interlocks is the CDC’s top recommendation for reducing the approximately 11,000 alcohol-related driving deaths yearly, which it says is about a third of all driving deaths.

But the American Beverage Institute fears mandates go too far and it wants judges to stay in the picture, said Sarah Longwell, the restaurant trade group’s managing director.

"There is a distinction between somebody who is one sip over the legal limit and the type of person who has 10 drinks," Longwell told msnbc.com. "The judicial system should be involved in those cases," she said.

"Restaurants prefer 10 people come in and have one drink each than one person order 10 drinks," she said.

A 120-pound woman who has two glasses of wine with dinner metabolizes alcohol differently than the 10-drink offender, she said.

A judge, not legal mandates, should decide about ignition interlocks at the lighter levels, she said.

The spread of mandates and discussion of ignition interlocks will "prime the public" for the day when the government requires auto manufacturers to install even more-sophisticated alcohol-detection devices as original equipment, Longwell said.

The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, funded in part by automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says it is working on "potential technologies that could detect alcohol from air samples in the vehicle passenger compartment, through the driver’s skin using tissue spectroscopy, from emissions through the skin, from eye movements, and from driving performance." (Wired takes detailed look at DADSS.)

"Why wouldn’t you want that?" Longwell asked.

The problem is in the details of where maximum alcohol levels are set. They won’t be at .08, she predicted, because if someone drinks five shots and hops behind the steering wheel, the driver's blood level won't cross the .08 threshold for a while. No one has the answer yet on how low to set cutoff sensors, she said.

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