Technology Alone Won't Tackle Drunk Driving

Ignition interlock devices promoted by MADD will do little to stop people from driving while intoxicated

Editors' note: This is the first of two perspectives on the effectiveness of so-called ignition interlock devices, designed to keep people from driving while intoxicated.

Government statistics show that alcohol-related fatality figures have been essentially unchanged for the past decade—despite lowered blood-alcohol standards, Draconian penalties, roadblocks, legal presumptions of guilt, and other assaults on the Constitution.

Recognizing a failed effort, Mothers Against Drunk Driving has unveiled with considerable fanfare its latest weapon in the "War on Drunk Driving:" the ignition interlock device (IID). The device is not new, of course. It has been in use in many states for several years (with notably little success) and versions are being developed by Saab, Toyota (TM), and Nissan (NSANY) for possible installation in future car models as standard equipment. There are, however, two basic reasons this newest "answer" to the drunk driving problem will fail as well.

First, IIDs are inaccurate, easily circumvented, dangerous—and ineffective. Unlike the infrared spectroscopic breath instruments used by law enforcement, or even the less sophisticated handheld field units used by officers (deemed too inaccurate to be used in evidence), IIDs are primitive devices that are mounted along with the ashtray in the car's dashboard—and thus subject to contaminants, cigarette smoke, vibrations from the road, etc. In any event, an intoxicated person could easily have someone else breathe into the device, or simply borrow or rent another car. And because IIDs generally require periodic retesting of the driver while the car is underway, the risk from driver distraction alone poses a very real danger.

But how effective are IIDs in achieving MADD's goal of lowering fatalities? In a study of the devices' effectiveness in California, the state's Motor Vehicles Dept. came to the following conclusions:

•"The expected effect, that an IID order/restriction issued by the court would result in a lower rate of subsequent (driving under the influence) convictions, was not observed.

•"The risk of a subsequent crash was higher for drivers installing an IID, compared with drivers [who did not install] a device."

The study went on to say, "The results of this outcome study clearly show that IIDs are not effective in reducing DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) convictions or incidents for first DUI offenders." It added, "Because there is no evidence that interlocks are an effective traffic safety measure for first DUI offenders, the use of the devices should not be emphasized."

Complicated Problem

The second reason the IID will fail is that, as with other attempts to bring down the alcohol-related fatality figures, the IID does not address the underlying problem. The risk of DUI-caused fatalities lies not with the social drinkers who represent the vast majority of drivers whose blood alcohol content is higher than .08%, most of whom are in the .08% to .15% range.

My own experience from prosecuting and defending thousands of people accused of DUI is that those who cause injury and death on our highways are usually fairly identifiable: the problem alcoholic. This client can usually be identified by two factors. First, the blood-alcohol level is very high, commonly over .20%. Second, the client is a recidivist—that is, a repeat offender.

Thus, the first step is to identify the danger—the relatively small number of "problem drinkers"—and to stop filling our jails with social drinkers.

A Rehabilitative Approach

The second step is to decide what to do with this problem drinker/driver. Our present approach is purely punitive. But if we simply throw the alcoholic in jail for six months, what is accomplished? We've made the streets safe from him for six months—and on the day he gets out, he drives to the nearest bar and resumes his drinking. We have made no real progress: Our jails continue to burst at the seams, and the fatalities continue at their predictable levels.

I would suggest a rehabilitative approach rather than a punitive one, an approach that would actually take a step toward solving the problem rather than waiting for the vicious cycle to begin again. By now, most experts recognize that alcoholism is a disease, not a choice (the "choice" to drive, of course, is made by an inebriated person, and thus is a Catch-22). And you don't treat a disease with incarceration.

Need For Treatment

We recognize legal incapacity due to mental disease. The plea or verdict is "not guilty by reason of insanity." The defendant is not simply set free, but is hospitalized for treatment of the disease until he is well. Why not treatment for problem drunk drivers who suffer from the (largely genetic) disease of alcoholism? In other words, why not recognize a plea of "not guilty by reason of alcoholism?" Again, this does not mean he "gets off." He will be ordered to undergo rehabilitative therapy. In serious cases, mandatory commitment to a rehabilitative facility may be appropriate.

The choice is fairly simple: Do you want vengeance, or safety? Would you prefer to have a chronic drunk driver off the road for a few months—or in control of his disease?

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