Alcohol sensors weighed to fight drunken driving

Old methods questioned in view of unchanging death toll

November 20, 2006|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Deterrence, the tactic of choice against drunken drivers for two decades, is no longer working in the struggle to reduce the death toll, say private and government experts, and today they will propose moving toward alcohol detection in every vehicle.

In the first phase, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, backed by a national association of state highway officials and car manufacturers, plans to campaign to change drunken driving laws in 49 states to require that even first offenders be required to install a device that tests drivers and shuts down the car if it detects alcohol.

Many states require the devices for people who have been convicted several times. Last year, New Mexico became the first to use them after a first offense. With that tactic and others, New Mexico saw a 12 percent drop in alcohol-related fatalities last year, while the number nationwide was essentially unchanged, according to federal figures.

The next step would be a program to develop new devices that would unobtrusively test any driver for alcohol and disable the car to thwart drunken driving. The automaker Saab and a medical equipment firm have devices that might be adapted for that job.

About 13,000 people will die this year, as in each of the past several years, in car crashes in which a driver was legally drunk.

"We've seen no progress in 10 years; we're completely stalled," said Susan A. Ferguson, a highway safety researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Ferguson said the most promising new technologies would work automatically. "We don't want the soccer mom dropping kids off, going to the grocery store and the preschool, and having to blow into something every time," she said.

Chuck Hurley, the chief executive of MADD, said that automatic sensors might be used first in corporate fleets, and that eventually insurance companies might give discounts on coverage to drivers who have them.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers helped a New Mexico task force appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson develop its program, and supports early use of Breathalyzer interlocks, a spokesman said. So does the Governors Highway Safety Association, said its chairman, Christopher J. Murphy.

Murphy said the typical penalty, revoking a driver's license, did not work because offenders drive anyway; California alone has about 1 million people driving with suspended or revoked licenses, he said.

Murphy also supports the long-term goal of unobtrusive alcohol detection in all cars. "When 40 percent of all our crashes are alcohol-involved, I don't think it's going to be that difficult of a sell," he said.

The groups and the Department of Transportation are also announcing an enforcement campaign aimed at drunken drivers.

Top Bush administration officials also will endorse the proposed research program, said other participants in the meeting, but have not decided whether to push for wider adoption of the New Mexico tactic.

Saab, which is owned by General Motors, is testing in Sweden a Breathalyzer that attaches to a key chain that will prevent a car from starting if it senses too much alcohol.

A New Mexico company, TruTouch Technologies, is modifying a technique developed for measuring blood chemistry in diabetics and using it to measure alcohol instead. The appliance shines a special light through the skin on the forearm and analyzes what bounces back. Future devices might read alcohol content when the driver's palm touches the steering wheel or gearshift lever, experts said.

A national campaign on drunken driving began a quarter-century ago with President Ronald Reagan, and the toll was cut by about 40 percent through a change in attitudes and an increase in the legal drinking age. But over the past decade, while the rate of deaths per car or per mile traveled has declined, the death toll has flattened as traffic has increased.

"We have to begin looking at some new, innovative ways to begin to bring this terrible number down," said Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The board has not studied the question of installing interlocks, the technical term for the shutdown devices, after a first offense, Rosenker said.

Troy W. Prichard, a lawyer in Albuquerque who defends people arrested on drunken driving charges, said that interlocks after each first arrest could be overkill.

"There could be the responsible guy that just lapses that one time," he said. "Getting the handcuffs on him might be all that guy needed to know not to do it again." But, he added, "another guy, it may be his first, and he's on the road to 12."

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