Has the Time Come for Mandatory Ignition Interlock Devices?

By Dean Dauphinais 03/25/15

Drunk driving ends a life every 51 minutes in America. Could the mandatory addition of ignition interlock devices to all vehicles be the key to saving lives?

Dean Dauphinais
Dean Dauphinais

It's no secret that drunk driving is one of this country's biggest safety concerns. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), every day almost 30 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. This amounts to one death every 51 minutes. In 2012, 10,322 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third (31%) of all traffic-related deaths in the U.S.

Wow. Those statistics are pretty sobering (pun intended).

If the cost of human lives isn't enough, drunk driving also costs this country billions of actual dollars each year. An NHTSA study cited on the Centers for Disease Control website states that the annual cost of alcohol-related crashes in the U.S. totals more than $59 billion.

Wow (again).

So how do we prevent the lethal combination of alcohol and automobiles from killing so many Americans going forward? Is there anything out there that could help reduce those astronomical figures stated above?

There is, and it's called an ignition interlock.

Historically, ignition interlock devices (IID) have been installed in the cars of people who have been convicted of driving while impaired. They prevent operation of the vehicle by anyone with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) above a specified safe level. The concept is simple: Before you start your car, you exhale into the device. If it detects an unsafe BAC level, your ignition is locked and you can't start your car.

I've thought for a long time that IIDs would be an effective way to prevent people from driving while intoxicated. More than 20 years ago, after my father racked up his last of many DUIs, he had a court-ordered ignition interlock installed on his car. At the time, I was working for my dad and driving him around on sales calls. So I experienced firsthand what it's like to operate a car with an IID. And I had no problem whatsoever with it. It also kept my father from drinking and driving, which is something no one, or nothing else, had been able to do up to that point. As someone who worried constantly about my dad possibly hurting someone with his car, the IID actually provided me with a little bit of comfort. (That might sound silly, but it's true.)

"Why don't they just put these things on all cars?" I would frequently ask myself.

My interest in the IID idea was rekindled recently when I opened my email inbox and saw the latest daily news blast from "Join Together," a news service of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. The headline for one of the articles read:

"Putting Alcohol Ignition Interlocks in New Cars Could Prevent Many Deaths: Study"

When I clicked through to the story, I was shocked by what I read.

"[Over a 15-year implementation period,] if all new cars had devices that prevent drunk drivers from starting the engine, an estimated 85% of alcohol-related deaths could be prevented in the United States, a new study concludes. The devices, called alcohol ignition interlocks, could prevent more than 59,000 crash fatalities and more than 1.25 million non-fatal injuries, according to the University of Michigan researchers."

Wow (yet again). Those numbers are ridiculous, but in the best possible way.

The findings from that University of Michigan study were published in the March 15, 2015, issue of the American Journal of Public Health as "Modeling the Injury Prevention Impact of Mandatory Alcohol Ignition Interlock Installation in All New US Vehicles."

The lead author of the study, Dr. Patrick Carter, an emergency physician with the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, said most drunk drivers make about 80 trips under the influence of alcohol before they are stopped for a DUI. "If we decided that every new car should have an alcohol ignition interlock that’s seamless to use for the driver and doesn’t take any time or effort, we suddenly have a way to significantly reduce fatalities and injuries that doesn’t rely solely on police,” he told Reuters.

The study also concluded that over $340 billion in injury-related costs could be avoided over the same 15-year period.

Reading numbers like those cited in the U of M study make me think of a blog I wrote about a year ago called "Aren't All Lives Worth Saving?" The subject of that blog was the NHTSA's decision to require rearview cameras in all new cars sold in the U.S. by 2018. What prompted that decision? The NHTSA estimated rearview cameras in all cars could "prevent between 13 and 15 deaths and as many as 1,300 injuries annually."

Hmm. If you average the cumulative totals arrived at by the U of M researchers, ignition interlocks could prevent more than 3,930 fatalities and 83,300 injuries annually. That's way more than the backup cams' 15 deaths and 1,300 injuries. So let's mandate IIDs on all new cars. It's a no-brainer, right?

Of course, it isn't. In fact, it's a crazy idea, because it would make cars more expensive. Oh, and there's also the little issue of people's rights. This is America, dammit, and no one's going to tell people when they can or can't drive their precious automobiles, even if it means saving lives. Can you imagine the field day the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) would have if the government required installation of ignition interlocks in all new cars? It would not be pretty.

Well, I've always enjoyed watching the ACLU do their thing, so maybe it's time for someone to officially propose mandatory IIDs and see where the idea goes. We learn from a very early age that if we abuse the privileges we have, those privileges sometimes have to be altered accordingly. Driving a car is a privilege, and if people can't do it responsibly—which means NOT doing it after they've been drinking—then maybe it's time to put a new technological safeguard in place. 

If I recall correctly, a whole lot of people weren’t real thrilled when they were told they had to wear their seatbelt. But people adapted, it worked out okay, and we’re all safer because of it. Is this so much different than that? Is it really asking that much for people to be sober before they get behind the wheel and drive their car?

I think not.

What do you think about the idea? Feel free to weigh in by commenting below.

Dean Dauphinais works tirelessly to break the stigma associated with addiction. He is the author of the blog My Life as 3D: 3D-mensional musings from the Father of a Person in Long-Term Recovery from Addictiona member of the Parent Support Network at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, and a Lead Advocate for Heroes in Recovery. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Dean Dauphinais works tirelessly to break the stigma associated with addiction. He is the author of the blog My Life as 3D: 3D-mensional musings from the Father of a Person in Long-Term Recovery from Addiction, a member of the Parent Support Network at thePartnership for Drug-Free Kids, and a Lead Advocate for Heroes in Recovery. You can follow him on Twitter.