How do you stop drunk driving? Activists would tell you to stop drunk drivers from turning on their cars.
The mandatory installation of ignition interlock devices (i.e. breathalyzers) is a commonly proposed “solution” to America's so-called “drunk driving epidemic.” On the surface, an expansion of these in-car alcohol detectors seems like a sensible approach: use modern technology to stop drinkers from hitting the road—and, potentially, someone else. But the glorification of detection devices is troublesome in several ways.
For starters, drunk driving fatalities have plummeted since the early 1980s, when record-keeping first began. In 1982, alcohol-related fatalities in the United States surpassed 21,100. In 2014, that number dropped to less than 10,000 fatalities—a decrease of 53 percent. 10,000 fatalities is obviously still too high, but to characterize drunk driving as an “epidemic” is misleading. More people die each year from the flu.
Mandating breathalyzers for all convicted drunk drivers—even first-time offenders—essentially treats all DUI offenders equally, even though roughly 70 percent of alcohol-related fatalities involve a driver with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.15 or higher. Treating these problem drinkers—many of them being repeat offenders at twice the legal limit—like a first-time offender clocking a 0.08 BAC ignores the fact that not all drunk driving is created equal. A 120-pound woman can reach the 0.08 BAC legal limit after just two 6-ounce glasses of wine at dinner (the equivalent of driving while talking on a hands-free cellphone). That is a far cry from a repeat offender drinking 10 beers and getting behind the wheel.
Think about it this way: speeding is a major cause of fatalities on the highway, yet we don’t punish someone going five miles per hour over the speed limit the same way as someone caught driving 30 miles per hour over the limit. Both speeders broke the law and deserve punishment, but they pose significantly different risks to society.
Sweeping ignition interlock proposals are also ineffective. In California, for example, state legislators have introduced Senate Bill 1046, which would require all DUI offenders to have breathalyzers installed in their vehicles. The legislation indiscriminately expands on a pilot program in four California counties—Alamaeda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Tulare—where ignition interlocks are already required.
Yet a June 2016 report from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) found that on;y about 42 percent of drunk-driving offenders even installed the ignition interlock. The rest completely ignored the mandate with no repercussions. And 42 percent is on the high side: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has determined that fewer than 30 percent of America's DUI offenders who were required to install ignition interlocks actually complied. In some states, the compliance rate barely exceeds 20 percent.
Worse yet, California's DMV report concluded that the pilot program “does not appear to be associated with a reduction in the number of first-time or repeat DUI convictions in the pilot counties.” In other words, mandatory ignition interlocks did nothing to curtail drunk driving. It's just another “solution” in search of a problem.