As Americans prepare to ring in the New Year, the National Transportation Safety Board and AAA are calling on states to resolve to prevent needless injuries and deaths by requiring ignition interlock devices for all convicted drunk drivers. This is a fitting resolution given that people are more likely to be killed by a drunk driver on New Year’s Day than any other day throughout the year.
The New Year’s holiday consistently contributes the highest proportion of alcohol-related traffic fatalities compared with any other day of the year. Last year, 122 people died in car crashes on New Year’s Day, and drunk drivers were responsible for more than half of those fatalities.
While drunk driving receives significant attention as the nation celebrates the end of the year, the dangers of impaired driving are serious every single day. In 2011, for example, there were 9,878 fatalities in crashes involving a driver with an illegal blood-alcohol content level of 0.08 or higher, accounting for 1 out of every 3 traffic fatalities. That’s an average of one death every 53 minutes.
Authorities are doing their best to curb drunk driving with the tools made available to them, but they are falling short. Police officers arrested 1.4 million people for driving under the influence in 2010, a rate of one arrest for every 149 licensed drivers in the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that many first offenders have driven drunk many times before their first arrest. And about one-third of those arrested have been convicted at least once before for driving while intoxicated.
The most common methods used by the legal system to prevent a second drunk driving offense include longer sentences, limitations on plea bargains, referrals to treatment programs, and license suspensions. While these options have benefits and work for some offenders, their impact is limited because they do not separate the behaviors of drinking from driving.
It is time to implement a proven method to prevent recidivism by requiring the use of ignition interlock devices for all convicted drunk drivers, including first-time offenders. This is the most effective option available for ensuring that alcohol consumption does not mix with driving for those most likely to drive drunk again.
Ignition interlock devices require a driver to blow into the device and register a sober blood alcohol level. If the driver has been drinking and is unable to pass the breath test, the car will not start, which prevents the motorist from driving while impaired.
Ignition interlocks work. Research shows these devices can reduce repeat offenses by a median of 67 percent. Drivers with interlocks also have fewer alcohol-impaired crashes than drivers who had their licenses suspended because of a DWI conviction. In fact, estimates suggest that 50-75 percent of offenders with suspended licenses continue to drive and have more alcohol-impaired crashes than drivers with an ignition interlock.
The effectiveness of interlocks may explain why 80 percent of Americans support ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers, according to a 2011 survey by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Congress agrees. It directed the US Department of Transportation to award grants to states that require ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders.
Today, only 17 states and four California counties require the devices for all convicted drunk drivers. It’s time for the other 33 states plus Washington, D.C. to step up for safety and require ignition interlocks for all offenders.
Critics cite the expense and the curtailment of civil liberties as arguments against the passage of mandatory ignition-interlock laws. Contrary to public perception, offenders pay relatively low costs to run these devices, which total less than the price of a single beer a day after installation. Further, interlocks only are required in a first-time offender’s vehicle for a limited period of time. The purpose of these devices is not to punish, but to protect the public while those convicted of an alcohol-impaired driving offense learn to change their habits behind the wheel.
Ideally, no one would drive while intoxicated. Yet each year millions of people choose to drive after drinking alcohol without regard for their safety or the safety of those sharing the road. The most recent analysis shows these crashes can cost society more than $100 billion a year in monetary and productivity losses. In most cases, the victims and local taxpayers incur the majority of the financial and emotional costs, not the offender.
We challenge state policymakers to join us in our New Year’s resolution and enact legislation requiring ignition interlock devices for all convicted offenders. Next year, unless more states take action, there will likely be another 9,878 tragedies. That’s nearly 10,000 reasons for doing what works to keep impaired drivers off our roadways.
Robert L. Darbelnet is President and CEO of AAA and Deborah A.P. Hersman is Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.