A U.S. transportation safety board squared off against a restaurant-industry organization when it recommended making all drunken-driving offenders use devices that keep an intoxicated person from starting a car.
The National Transportation Safety Board yesterday called for requirements throughout the U.S. for devices, known as ignition interlocks, which are now mandatory for all offenders in about one-third of the states. The NTSB, which lacks enforcement power, previously recommended their use only when drivers’ blood-alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit.
The recommendation was questioned by the American Beverage Institute, a group whose members include chain restaurants. It says ignition locks should be required only for repeat offenders or drivers charged with having a blood-alcohol content of at least 0.15 percent. The legal limit in most states is 0.08 percent.
“We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all penalty that penalizes somebody one drink over the legal limit the same way as someone who’s a .19,” said Sarah Longwell, managing director of the group. “We believe judicial discretion should be applied.”
The Washington-based group, which doesn’t disclose its members, “protects the on-premise dining experience and defends the right to drink moderately and responsibly prior to driving,” according to its website.
The group, run by public relations executive Rick Berman, says restaurant sales of alcoholic beverages would be reduced by broader requirements for ignition interlocks or other alcohol-sensing technologies now being tested in cars, which the NTSB also endorsed yesterday.
Ignition interlocks force drivers to test their breath by blowing into a tube to prove they aren’t drunk before a car will start.
The agency’s recommendation “will be extremely useful in convincing state legislatures to pass ignition interlock bills,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “NTSB is a respected and revered organization on safety issues and this can only help.”
The safety board’s recommendation will be influential as more states debate tougher drunk-driving laws in 2013, said David Kelly, executive director of the Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers.
“States have a golden opportunity to use the provisions of MAP-21 to redefine their impaired driving programs and hopefully these new NTSB recommendations will help build that case,” he said, referring to the U.S. highway bill passed by Congress earlier this year.
The legislation offers U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grants to states that have or pass laws requiring ignition interlocks for drivers after their first driving-while-intoxicated offense. Seventeen states now require them.
The devices are made for the U.S. market by companies including Draegerwerk AG & Co., a German manufacturer of medical and safety equipment, and closely held Smart Start Inc., TruTouch Technologies Inc. and Guardian Interlock Systems.
The safety board described as “promising” a research project funded by automakers and highway-safety regulators to passively detect whether a driver is drunk. Such a system may measure a driver’s blood-alcohol content through fingertip sensors on the steering wheel or through ambient breath measurements that don’t require a person to blow into a tube.
Installing such systems as original equipment in cars would effectively put an interlock on every vehicle and could have 4,000 false positives a day even if the systems operate at near 100 percent accuracy, Longwell, of the beverage group, said in an interview.
The safety board call to require interlock devices was part of a package of recommendations yesterday that are aimed at reducing crashes caused by wrong-way drivers on highways.
Wrong-way collisions kill an average of 360 people a year in the U.S., according to the board. About 60 percent of crashes with a driver going the wrong way down a road involve alcohol.
“Wrong-way accidents are among the most deadly types of motor accidents,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said yesterday at a hearing in Washington. “They usually occur at high speed and are primarily head-on collisions.”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has called for mandatory interlocks for first-time offenders since 2006 and praised the safety board’s action.
“The NTSB is really the final piece of the puzzle for major highway safety players that we’ve looked for to endorse our campaign,” said J.T. Griffin, senior vice president of public policy for the advocacy group, based in Irving, Texas. “With the addition of ignition interlocks and with the addition of advanced technology, the NTSB has really fully endorsed our campaign.”
“The fact is, .08 is a generous amount of alcohol” and wouldn’t prevent someone from legally driving after having an alcoholic drink, Griffin said in an interview.
“This has nothing to do with taking away an adult’s right to have a glass of beer at a Nats game,” he said, referring to the Washington Nationals baseball team. “This is about drunk driving.”
The safety board, which investigates fatal plane crashes, has spent more time in the past year on highway safety as U.S. aviation has become safer. There have been no passenger deaths on a U.S. commercial flight aboard planes with 100 or more seats since 2001, the longest stretch since the jet age began.
In addition to proposing the interlock requirement and endorsing passive technology, the NTSB yesterday recommended that auto navigation-system suppliers develop “consistent and intuitive” alerts to let drivers know if they enter a highway using an exit ramp. Hersman said that’s the most common way drivers end up going the wrong way.
NHTSA said this week that traffic deaths in 2011 fell to 32,367, the fewest since 1949.
The NTSB also recommended states develop safety programs for older drivers, saying people over age 70 account for 15 percent of wrong-way collisions even though they’re less likely to be drunk.
The safety board last month recommended states collect information on where drunk drivers had their last drink, as well as improving data collection and reporting of blood-alcohol concentration and agreeing on a common standard for drug testing after accidents.
About one-third of U.S. traffic deaths are related to alcohol, according to NHTSA data.