Although over the past 25 years fatalities involving alcohol-impaired driving have reduced, progress has in fact stalled in recent times. But studies and programs worldwide show that alcohol ignition interlocks could be effective in saving lives and reducing injury. Max Glaskin reports
Promoters of alcohol ignition interlocks are feared in some quarters. “They are going to push until there is one installed in every car and it’s set on 0.00! It’s a backdoor approach to prohibition that will shift the entire way we socialise.” That’s the view of Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, reported in the Washington Post in March 2010. She was responding to lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia, who are considering following the examples of 12 other US states and making interlocks mandatory for first-time offenders.
What concerned Longwell particularly is that the proposed law will inhibit people from having a second glass of wine with dinner, or a beer at a ball game. “We don’t think that they should be punished to the same degree as somebody who has 10 drinks and then drives,” she told the Washington Post. “There’s nobody who thinks it’s okay to drive drunk, but a judge should have discretion.”
A measure of discretion
Interlocks, of course, don’t have discretion. Once fitted to a vehicle’s ignition, they enforce the strict limits decreed by legislators, stopping the ignition from working if the driver exceeds that limit. The idea has always been that they help the offender to separate driving from drinking alcohol. “The evidence of their success is pretty constant,” suggests Paul Marques, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) and chair of the International Council on Alcohol Drugs and Traffic Safety. “There is a reduction in recidivism of 60% to 80% until the interlocks are removed.” Marques first began researching the effectiveness of the devices in 1989 for a government project. Around 12,000 people die on US roads each year as a result of drivers with blood alcohol content (BAC) above the legal levels. “That’s one death every 45 minutes,” he says.
With most states now allowing courts to impose interlocks, their use has mushroomed. About 180,000 were on vehicles in September 2009 and Marques believes about 500,000 will be in use on US vehicles by 2016.
The impact that interlocks have had in New Mexico is as good an advertisement for them as any. Once the state ranked among the highest for the number of alcohol-involved crashes, the latest data from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows it has dropped to 25th following a reduction of 44% over six years in relevant fatalities and a 45% reduction in injuries. With 0.4 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities per 100 million miles, New Mexico is now equal to the average across the USA.
Although it’s not possible to directly link these benefits to the increasing use of alcolocks, the similarity between the growth in their use and decline in alcohol-related crashes is persuasive. One significant step may have been the introduction of interlock licenses. “Someone who has had their licence removed as a result of a serious alcohol-related driving offence, or a series of lesser such offences, may still be tempted to drive – and then they may not only be driving unlicensed and uninsured but also drinking alcohol,” Marques explains. “So, in New Mexico, they can apply for a special license which is granted if they agree to having an alcolock fitted.” Such applications are fast-tracked and processed within 40 days to reduce the risk of the applicant driving illegally before the interlock is fitted.
The effects of interlocks, though, do not endure and – when they are removed – people’s previous drinking and driving patterns often return. Some administrations have taken steps to try to extend the benefits and effect behaviour change. In Florida, drivers with interlocks who fail two BACs have to start their interlock period over again and are required to go on an alcohol treatment program. Colorado stipulates that those who fail three BACs in a short period have six months added to their interlock control time.
Some argue that those approaches are using interlocks to enforce abstinence and this, according to Marques, has opened up a “philosophical gap” and impacts on others. “The interlock is a vehicle sanction and everyone who wants to drive the vehicle, particularly family members, has to give a breath sample. States usually say the offender is responsible for all the test results.
So the interlock cannot enforce the offender to abstain unless the device also generates a positive ID of who gives the samples. Some major interlock manufacturers are addressing this problem by including a photo option on the device and include a photograph of the person blowing their breath into the same data series as the sample.
Another improvement in interlocks would be welcomed by Robyn Robertson, president and chief executive of the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), based in Ottawa, Canada. “There’s a growing need for real-time data reporting because research shows that swiftness and certainty are important elements of deterrence,” she says. “Sanctions should be applied immediately following inappropriate behaviour to be most effective, so the faster that practitioners can be informed of violations, the more immediate the sanctions can be. Practitioners already have some ability to receive information about violations more quickly as devices can be programd for ‘early recall’ following a set number of violations – meaning offenders will have to come in sooner to have data downloaded.”
However, Robertson is concerned that technology advances could cause problems. “With interlocks, the end-user may not necessarily think it is in their interest to get the best possible product (e.g. an offender would rather use a device that is easily circumvented, cheaper, or with fewer features) so the rules of demand and supply are somewhat different,” she explains. “This can lead to situations where professional manufacturers with more sophisticated technology are at a disadvantage because they must compete with others that undermine the market with a less sophisticated product. Such a situation is dangerous as it detracts from the effectiveness of interlocks as a means to prevent drink driving. So jurisdictions will have to consider the best strategies to effectively manage technological advances.”
In Canada, the latest figures show 863 people were killed in a year and one-third of crashes involve alcohol, with 35% of fatally injured drivers having been drinking. Almost all Canadian jurisdictions have an alcohol interlock program in operation or one that is soon to begin. “Alberta, Ontario and Quebec have had a program in operation for several years and each has made changes to enhance the program during this time,” Robertson reveals. “Conversely, in Nova Scotia the program is quite new and has incorporated a number of the best practice features, including a strong assessment and treatment component.” TIRF recently completed a primer entitled Alcohol Interlocks in Canada: From Research to Practice that contains a complete overview of the research, technology and programs.
Robertson highly rates interlock programs in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Illinois, Victoria (Australia) and the Netherlands. “One of the program features that most jurisdictions struggle with is the management of indigent offenders,” she continues. “I would recommend the protocol in South Carolina and Michigan (USA) to those looking for guidance in this area.”
The cost factor
The cost of the alcohol interlock is an ongoing concern. “The reality is that anyone who can afford to drink can afford an interlock,” Robertson suggests. “The average daily cost of this sanction is US$3.00-US$4.00 (or the cost of a drink), which is well below the cost for other incapacitation systems. The cost to offenders to have the alcohol interlock device installed is approximately US$100.00 and between US$60.00 and US $90.00 per month for monitoring. Unfortunately the cost issue is frequently raised because the cost of the interlock device comes after all of the other costs that are imposed for a drink-driving conviction, such as fines, licensing fees, increased insurance costs, treatment costs, probation supervision fees, etc” she continues.
“So the cost is often viewed in relation to all of the other costs and perceived as the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. The good news is that economies of scale continue to bring down the price of devices and more jurisdictions are making the use of the interlock a priority along with indigent funding.”
Denmark is set to join Finland in the tiny list of European countries that allows courts to impose alcolocks on drink-drive offenders. “The minister hopes it will be implemented this summer,” says Anders Rosbo, director of the Danish Road Safety Council. Around 20% of road deaths are related to drink-driving and – having watched the trials in Sweden particularly – first-time offenders with 2.0 BAC will have alcohol interlocks imposed.
The UK’s Department for Transport commissioned research into interlocks in 2004 and published the findings in 2008. “From what it was told, the DfT believed that the cost of mandating interlocks for drink-drive offenders outweighed the benefit,” reports Robert Gifford, executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. This is despite the fact that the proportion of road deaths in which alcohol was involved has stayed constant – at about 18%. The most recent annual figures show that 460 out of 2,530 died as a result of drivers with alcohol in their blood. “We’re left with two avenues for introducing alcolocks in the UK,” Gifford continues. “OEMs could offer them as an option, as Volvo does already with some models. And employers with drink-drive policies could fit them to guarantee their policy is being observed.” He believes a combination of the latter, along with enabling courts to impose interlocks, is a good route forward. “The judiciary might be allowed to reduce a driver’s suspension period if they agree to have an interlock fitted.”
Two European countries will have interlock legislation in place by the end of 2010, five more have ongoing trials, while another has voluntary use of interlocks in commercial vehicles. “It sounds like the UK is falling behind the general trend,” Gifford concludes. “One of the roles of the European Union must be to raise standards across Europe and it would be a great shame if the UK was lagging behind.”
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The US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has canvassed public attitudes towards having alcohol ignition interlocks in all road vehicles, and this research revealed that support is extremely strong.
Of those surveyed, 84% said convicted DUI/DWI offenders should put interlocks in their vehicles, while 64% said having reliable advanced alcohol detection technology in all vehicles was a ‘good’ or a ‘very good’ idea. Only 30% said it was a ‘bad’ idea. Among respondents who said it was a ‘bad’/‘very bad’ idea, one-third cited concerns about privacy or government interference, with 20% saying not all drivers need to be screened.
Around 42% of respondents who drive said that they would want an advanced alcohol detection device in their next vehicle if it was available as an option at a reasonable price. Of the 54% who said they would not want a device, 44% said they do not drink alcohol so it would thus not be useful.
Most people said a price less than US$500 would be reasonable.
See Attitudes Toward In-Vehicle Advanced Alcohol Detection Technology published by IIHS
Australia has paved the way with many interlock programmes and legislation, yet the incidence of recidivism – offenders returning to drink after the devices are removed – is still of concern. James Freeman and colleagues from the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety in Queensland University of Technology (CARRS-Q) have pinpointed some problems.
“Participants [in the study] were generally unwilling to reduce their alcohol consumption levels, as well as recognise that interlock breath violations resulted from drinking. Rather, participants displayed a propensity to blame the readings on ‘false positives’.” So technology alone is not enough to help some offenders, particularly those who do not recognise the severity of their drinking habit. “If individuals do not acknowledge inappropriate drinking levels during interlock usage, then achieving successful behavioural change once the device is removed from vehicles appears unlikely,” the CARRS-Q team says. “A high number of breath test violations during early interlock usage may be an effective way to identify individuals who should be directed toward additional interventions – e.g. alcohol counselling.”
See The Impact of Alcohol Ignition Interlocks on a Group of Recidivist Offenders: A Case Study Approach by James Freeman, Mary Sheehan and Cynthia Schonfeld
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