Drivers Twice Limit Involved in Most Drunk-Driving Deaths

Most drunk drivers causing fatal crashes in the U.S. have consumed about twice as much alcohol as laws allow, the top U.S. auto-safety regulator said.

Requiring ignition-interlock devices, which are designed to prevent drunk drivers from starting their cars, for first-time offenders is the “best overall policy,” David Strickland, head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said today at a press conference in Washington. It’s up to states to implement that requirement, he said.

More than 70 percent of deaths in crashes involving drunk drivers in 2010 involved a driver with blood-alcohol content of .15 or higher, NHTSA said today. The legal limit in the U.S. is .08.

“They are getting deeply intoxicated before getting behind the wheel,” Strickland said.

Strickland commented at a demonstration of ignition-interlock devices by agency and law enforcement officials. Seventeen states have laws requiring ignition interlocks for first-time DUI offenders who want to regain the privilege of driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Missouri and Virginia are the two most recent states to add interlock laws, Jonathan Adkins, the group’s deputy executive director, said. States determine what blood-alcohol content drivers using interlocks can have. They can, and do, set them to activate at levels lower than .08. Drivers pay for the devices that are installed in their cars.

Interlock Incentives

A national surface-transportation law passed this year that takes effect Oct. 1 will give states extra highway money if they have interlock laws for convicted drunk drivers. In 2010, 10,228 people died in the U.S. in alcohol-related accidents, meaning there was one such death every 51 minutes, according to NHTSA.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated about 7,000 lives could be saved annually in the U.S. if no one drove with a blood-alcohol content higher than .08.

The American Beverage Institute, a Washington-based group representing beverage suppliers and restaurant chains, opposes interlock laws, saying they could punish patrons who are barely over the legal limit or instill fear into potential purchasers of alcoholic beverages.

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