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March 27, 2012

Alcohol industry resistant to federal support for more DUI prevention technology

This interesting new article from Politico, which is headlined "Fight brews over DUI technology," provides another clear example why I think parents (and others) should worry much more about the harms fostered by the alcohol industry than by the marijuana industry. As these excerpts highlight, the lobbies for booze peddlers are hard at work trying to prevent the development and more widespread use of new technologies to prevent drunk driving:

Safety advocates and alcohol interests are squaring off over legislation intended to reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths through the use of devices that prevent drunken drivers from starting their cars.  Tucked into the Senate’s transportation bill is a provision that directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to study “more widespread deployment of in-vehicle technology” that would prevent drunken driving....

The idea is to develop some kind of nonintrusive technology based around touch or breathing that would be able to sense when a driver is drunk and disable the car. Technology on the market now — called “ignition interlocks” — require a driver to blow into a Breathalyzer device attached to the car’s dashboard and then wait 30 seconds until the sample is analyzed.  Only then will the car start.

The research is trying to develop a “far less intrusive” technology more acceptable to the general public, which consumers eventually would be able to choose as an option on a new car — similar to picking leather seats or a sunroof.

Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a group that represents alcohol distributors and restaurants that serve alcohol, said the provision is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent that could lead to mandating these devices on all new cars. “They’re developing it for all cars as original equipment.  The bill doesn’t mandate anything, but ultimately that’s what they want,” Longwell said.

But J.T. Griffin, senior vice president of public policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said all the program would do is enable research.  “Car companies right now are trying to figure out how to do it and if it can even be done.  The goal is this would be a voluntary technology,” Griffin said. “MADD’s perspective is, we think every parent in America is going to want this on their vehicle.”...

On this portion of the bill, the American Beverage Institute is waging a pretty lonesome war. The research provision has the support of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.

The other provision in question — which is in both the House and the Senate versions of the surface transportation bill — has drawn more opposition. The language stipulates that if states want about 5 percent of their regularly allocated safety money, they must enact a law that requires first-time DUI offenders to install an ignition interlock device if they want to continue driving.

“Both bills take a little bit of a different approach to safety, but at the end of the day, the states that pass ignition interlocks for all convicted offenders will receive additional money,” said Griffin of MADD. “This is a huge component of MADD’s campaign to eliminate drunk driving.”...

At present, 16 states have this sort of “all-offender” mandate for ignition interlocks on their books, and an additional 22 states require them for repeat offenders or those whose blood-alcohol content was especially high.  These programs generally require an offender to install an ignition interlock in order to avoid a complete driver’s license suspension for a period of time.

And, according to research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the all-offender mandate seems to be making a difference.  The study examined drivers in Washington state — one of the states that has an ignition interlock mandate for first-time offenders — and concluded that recidivism fell by 12 percent among first-timers who installed an interlock.

In New Mexico — the first state to mandate an ignition interlock — expanding the mandate to include first-time offenders reduced DUI-related fatalities by 35 percent over four years, according to data made available by the office of Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

Longwell of the American Beverage Institute said her group opposes the language because it would apply to first-time offenders no matter what their blood-alcohol content was.  ABI is pushing for the devices to be required only for repeat offenders or those whose blood alcohol content is .15 and higher.  If a first-time offender should be given an ignition interlock, “a judge should be involved” in the decision, she said.  “We treat different types of offenders differently, so we still want some kind of proportional response there,” Longwell said.

On this issue, ABI has some company. The Distilled Spirits Council, for instance, also does not support an ignition interlock mandate for first-time offenders.  “We continue to strongly support the use of judicial discretion and education” for offenses involving something other than “hard-core” offenders — those who are repeat violators or who blow high alcohol levels on a Breathalyzer test, the Distilled Spirits Council said in a statement.

Udall said the proof of the all-offender interlock mandate’s effectiveness is in the statistics.  “We made a dramatic difference in eight years with this,” Udall said, noting that he has been involved with pushing for policies that reduce drunken driving deaths since his time as New Mexico’s attorney general in the early 1990s.  “People shouldn’t be losing their lives as a result of drunk drivers. The thing you really learn more than anything is these are preventable deaths; it’s not like they have to happen,” Udall said.

Some related posts on sentencing drunk drivers and advocacy for ignition locks:

March 27, 2012 at 09:17 AM | Permalink


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Doug --

"...provides another clear example why I think parents (and others) should worry much more about the harms fostered by the alcohol industry than by the marijuana industry."

It's not a zero sum game. We should be taking steps to prevent the harms caused BOTH by alcohol and dope.

When, as a result largely of the efforts of MADD, people found out they could actually go to jail for drunk driving, the number of traffic deaths started to decline. The lesson, which we knew before anyway but refused to apply, is that people WILL change their bad behavior if they know that unpleasant consequences await its continuation.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 27, 2012 9:48:15 AM

I'd prefer that my teenagers not get into a car with a driver who was either drunk or stoned. But - as I have told them - if for some reason one had to choose, they're safer with the stoned driver. Shame on the liquor industry.

Posted by: parent | Mar 27, 2012 1:49:41 PM


Alcohol related traffic deaths began a long secular decline starting around 1981. The lions share of the decline, as a percent of total fatalities, had occurred by 1997 where they hit the secular low of forty percent of all fatalities and they have remained at about forty percent ever since. Most of the decline is attributed to improvements in auto-safety, mandatory seat belt laws and the baby boomer bulge growing out of their party stage. Very little to none is attributed to draconian drunk driving laws which came to the fore at only about the time that deaths hit their secular low in the mid nineties.

According to some polls it is estimated that there are nearly two hundred million instances of drunk driving per year, an estimate which hasn't changed for fifteen years. These two hundred million instances resulted in 11000 fatalities in 2009. Most people driving under the influence manage to make it to their destination safely. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, drunk driving laws don't keep drunks off the road or save any lives.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Mar 27, 2012 3:04:58 PM

Jardinero1 --

"Very little to none is attributed to draconian drunk driving laws which came to the fore at only about the time that deaths hit their secular low in the mid nineties."

That depends on who's doing the attributing.

And drunk driving laws with actual teeth (i.e., the prospect of some jail time) "came to the fore" in the eighties, not the mid-nineties.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 27, 2012 5:46:11 PM

Love the debate, Bill and Jardinero1, but neither of you engage with the more germaine modern reality that interlock devices (along with other potential means) that use technology to prevent drunks from driving may be more effective and more efficient at saving lives and associated costs with accidents than jail time or other less direct methods of trying to keep a risky individual off the road.

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 27, 2012 7:35:58 PM

Prof Berman,

I don't have a problem with the interlocks. I think they are a great step to solving what is both a personal and social problem, not what I consider a criminal problem.

I was merely rebutting Mr. Otis' contention that a heavy emphasis on fines and punishment will reduce the number of persons driving while intoxicated.

Bill, The second leading cause of death on the roads is driving in bad weather conditions. Driving in bad weather contributes to over 7000 needless deaths a year, only a third less than DUI. Maybe if we start arresting and punishing people for driving in the rain or fog or snow we can start to reduce those deaths too.

I actually don't drive in the rain because I recognize that it causes nearly as many deaths as driving drunk. I don't drive drunk so why would I endanger myself and others by driving in the rain? What about you, will you drive in the rain now that you know it is nearly as dangerous as driving drunk?

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Mar 27, 2012 10:03:11 PM

Jardinero1 --

"Maybe if we start arresting and punishing people for driving in the rain or fog or snow we can start to reduce those deaths too."

Since almost all crimes are committed by persons who are awake rather than asleep, maybe we should start arresting and punishing people for being awake, thus to reduce crime.

Yes Jardinero1, well..........if you want to go down the road of silliness, I can go there too.

The truth of the matter is that the number of traffic fatalities has fallen sharply at exactly the same time the number of DUI defendants sent to jail (for a few days anyway) has risen. You can say there's no causal connection, but most people know that there is in fact a relationship between crime and punishment. Before people started going to the slammer for a short time about 25 years ago, you never heard the phrase, "designated driver." People actually do change their behavior when the consequences change.

Everyone knows this in real life; it's only during discussions of criminal sanctions that defense-types want to pretend the causal relationship doesn't exist.

I hear all the time the identical argument that the growth of incarceration has not led to the halving of the rate of serious crime. That too is incorrect. Incarceration does not account for all of the decrease in crime, but it accounts for a significant portion of it, thus saving tens of thousands of potential crime victims.

As for technology, I'm all for it -- for the same reason I'm for keeping dangerous drugs illegal. The idea is not principally to punish wrongdoers after the fact; the idea is to PREVENT the wrongdoing, thus saving the wrongdoer his sentence and the victim his harm.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 28, 2012 9:17:43 AM


You can argue with me but you can't argue with the data.

There is zero statistical evidence that tough sentencing for DWI is remotely connected to the huge decrease in DWI related fatalities which occurred between 1981 and 1996. The "lock-em up, then fine them to death" regime didn't begin to hit its stride until about 1995 or 1996, precisely the time that the deathrate from DWI flattened out.

This same regime also did nothing to make a dent in the two hundred million instances of drunk driving which still occur annually. Sorry, but there isn't any there, there.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Mar 28, 2012 11:01:20 AM

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