DUIs Prompt Calls for Mandatory Alcohol Testing for All Drivers

One of the newest and, some would say most radical tools that government officials have started to employ to combat driving under the influence (DUI) is the ignition interlock device (IID).

Operating an ignition interlock device is fairly simple (as it must be for intoxicated individuals to effectively use it). Prior to starting the car, the driver must blow into a tube so the IID can measure the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC). The device will only allow the engine to start and, thus, the car to be driven, if the driver’s BAC is under the legal limit.

Most states in the US now require certain individuals who have been convicted of DUI to have the device installed in some or all cars that they drive. The IID has been effective at reducing the number of repeat DUI convictions for drivers who have had an IID installed in the car. However, because the IID is installed only after the first DUI (or second or third in some states), the device does little to prevent first-time drunk driving offenses.

While an IID is typically only installed in vehicle by court order in a DUI case, studies suggest that almost 10,000 deaths could be prevented if IIDs were installed in all cars.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is sponsoring a $10 million study aimed at developing a new generation of IID that would analyze the blood alcohol content of a car’s potential driver automatically or after the driver touched a button, eliminating the need for the driver to actually blow into a device. Qineti North America of Waltham, Massachusetts is the defense department contractor that is testing the new-generation IID in a five-year study slated to end in 2013. The US Congress is currently evaluating whether an additional $10 million should be earmarked for the study.

Both the NHTSA and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS) hope that, like seat belts and air bags, the IID will eventually become a required safety device in passenger vehicles. It is estimated that seat belts save approximately 15,000 lives each year.

Those opposed to mandatory IID installation in newly manufactured cars argue that the devices will impinge upon personal freedom and add to the cost of purchasing and taking care of a car. In addition, malfunctioning devices will likely frustrate and anger those who are sober, yet miss an important appointment or are stranded at the mall because the car won’t start. Opponents feel that the money would be better spent educating the public about the dangers of drunk driving.
However, those who advocate for the elimination of drunk driving suspect that many will gladly pay extra for installation of the safety device, especially parents of teen drivers. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is particularly vocal about mandating that the IID be installed in all motor vehicles. Given that roughly one-third of all highway fatalities are alcohol-related, MADD realizes that thirty years of DUI “education” has clearly failed to address the problem and more radical steps need to be taken to stop drunk driving.

Officials at QinetiQ understand that many US drivers will balk at having to blow into the IID each and every time they start their car, and thus, feel the device would be more willingly accepted by the general public if the driver does not have to be involved in the operation of the IID.

QinetiQ is currently testing two breath-based versions of the IID for possible wide-scale deployment – one is made in Canada and the other is made in Sweden. Both take measurements of the amount of ethanol in the driver’s breath and use it to calculate his or her blood alcohol content (BAC). The goal, for either product, is to reduce the size of the actual device to that of a cell phone for installation behind the dashboard. Both products have the ability to obtain the breath sample through a tiny hole in the vehicle’s dash, similar in size to the hole used to connect an iPod to the car’s audio system. Provided the driver passes the breath test, he or she would not even be aware that the testing had taken place. Another viable candidate for IID testing is made by TruTouch Technologies in New Mexico; this device uses a sensor and infrared light to detect alcohol through the skin. Ideally, the functions of both the breath-based and skin-based versions would be combined to produce the most robust IID.

Obviously, a major factor in the design of the device will be how to account for the BAC levels of passengers in the car or alcohol residue left on clothing or shoes after a spill. QinetiQ is also attempting to figure out how the human body metabolizes alcohol at various weights; they are currently paying research volunteers to binge drink (nine shots of vodka in twenty minutes) while watching TV in the company lab. Doctors collect blood samples at various intervals during the session.