Friday, June 5, 2009

A chicken in every pot and an interlock in every car?

As Congress debates the level of highway spending for the upcoming year, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has suggested that Congress spend $30 million to develop devices to detect alcohol in drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that if everyone who had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher was prevented from driving that 9,000 highway deaths a year could be prevented. 
At a hearing on Monday of the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee, the auto manufacturers’ vice president for vehicle safety, Robert Strassburger, cited figures from New Mexico, which mandates interlocks after a first drunken-driving conviction. Alcohol-involved crashes in New Mexico are down 30 percent, injuries 32 percent and fatalities 22 percent, he said.
Our friends in the automotive industry are not necessarily proposing that every new car come installed with an interlock device. They are, however, proposing that the money be spent to develop passive technologies to prevent impaired drivers from starting their cars. Matthew Wald, the author of the New York Times "The Nuts and Bolts of Whatever Moves You" blog writes that:
No one is proposing a breathalyzer in every car. The auto and insurance industries are already involved in a cooperative research program to develop passive monitoring systems. Blood alcohol can be measured by bouncing light, in the near-infra-red wavelength, off the skin of a driver. It can also be measured by the sweat on the skin, or by analyzing eye movements.
I want to know how these detection devices would be calibrated? How would they be monitored? Would they operate like a "black box" and store information that could be downloaded by law enforcement as part of an investigation? Is this just another attempt at circumventing our freedom in the name of public safety?

What questions do you have?


jdgalt said...

NHTSA's numbers on "drunk driving" have to be read very carefully to have any meaning at all, because the manner in which police departments collect statistics on the topic has been politicized for decades. In particular, any accident in which somebody present has any detectable alcohol in his/her blood (even if it's a passenger or a pedestrian) is counted as "alcohol related." Thus the number killed as a result of drinking and driving is exaggerated, probably by a factor of 10 or 20.

But even if we set that aside, the effect of putting interlocks on every car would not be to stop everyone with .08 or higher BAC from driving. It will be to stop everyone who has had even a taste of alcohol from driving, unless they cheat by having somebody else (often a child) blow into the machine for them. So it amounts to setting the legal limit to .001, while also making it easy for deliberate violators to defeat the machine. (Not to mention users of other drugs, which the machine won't catch.)

This is overprotectiveness at its stupidest.

If Congress has nothing better to do than this, maybe we should limit them to one short meeting every two years, like the Texas legislature.

Paul B. Kennedy said...

Thank you for your comment.

I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis of NHTSA's "drunk driving" statistics.

I also say let Congress hold more hearings on steroids in baseball and the BCS -- it prevents them from doing any further harm.

Feisty said...

This is an interesting issue, and I'd propose a compromise.

If these "passive" alcohol detection systems are really highly reliable (I'm skeptical), and if they cannot be easily fooled (doubt it), and if they really distinguish between someone who's had 2 glasses of wine with dinner and someone who is legally intoxicated or impaired, I think they should be installed.

I don't think that these devices should prevent a vehicle from being started, but if they're really that good (again, I'm skeptical), the car should issue a warning to the driver.

I have one additional caveat.

As a condition of the mandatory installation of these devices on new cars, if a driver is not warned by the vehicle that he or she may be at or above the legal limit, it should be prima facie evidence of innocence.

This would eventually end drunk driving prosecutions against all citizens who weren't aware that they were at or near the legal limit, and that would be a very good thing. It would make DWI a specific intent crime, and it would save lives (those lost in fatal accidents, as well as those lost to or ruined by a criminal conviction).

But I doubt the NHTSA would be interested that sort of outcome.

Paul B. Kennedy said...

Thanks for your comment.

While I am somewhat intrigued by your suggestion that the device should notify the driver if he or she has an alcohol concentration over .08, that is only one manner by which the state can "prove" intoxication.

The state can also argue intoxication by the loss of normal use of one's mental or physical faculties -- regardless of the alcohol concentration.