WASHINGTON – New technology such as alcohol-detecting devices in cars may hold the key to eliminating drunken driving, the activist group Mothers Against Drunk Driving assert in a campaign started Monday.
The organization and the U.S. Department of Transportation are pushing for such devices as well as tougher enforcement around the country.
"If we can't stop drunks from driving, we'll stop vehicles from driving drunks," said Glynn Birch, president of MADD, at a news conference. Birch said technology, along with tougher laws and enforcement, has put the elimination of drunken driving "at our fingertips."
The organization wants states to pass laws that would require breath-test interlock devices in vehicles for all those who have been convicted of drunken driving — even after the first offense. Only New Mexico has such a law for first offenders; 45 states and the District of Columbia allow the device for some offenders.
Interlock devices require drivers to blow into an instrument that measures alcohol in the breath. The vehicle will not start unless the driver's blood alcohol concentration is below a preset level. Other interlocks may require drivers to breathe into the devices after a certain time period, with the goal of preventing drinking while driving or having a sober friend start the car.
Birch said interlocks are 90 percent effective while installed on the vehicle, but one in eight drivers convicted of driving drunk get the device.
"The main reason people continue to drive drunk today is because they can and because we let them," Birch said.
MADD estimates that 1,900 lives could be saved each year if interlocks were installed in the vehicles of all convicted drunken drivers.
The American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurants, says MADD's campaign overreaches.
"Our general position is that the interlock campaign is not about eliminating drunk driving; it's about eliminating all moderate and responsible drinking prior to driving, and Americans should be outraged by this," said Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman for the association.
The organization is establishing a panel of safety experts to explore other technology options that would help prevent drunken driving. Some alternatives could measure blood alcohol concentration by using air samples in the vehicle, hand and eye movements or reflections from light shined into tissue.
"Advanced technology is being developed that in the future may allow quick, accurate and reliable detection of drinking drivers in the time it takes to start a vehicle," said Susan Ferguson, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, who will chair the panel.
MADD also wants states to implement more sobriety checkpoints.
"Drunk driving is a problem that is painful and persistent, but most importantly it is preventable," said Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters.
The federal government has set aside $7 million (euro5.5 million) for advertisements in December to remind U.S. drivers that if they register over the legal limit, they will be arrested.
Each year, nearly 13,000 people are killed by drunken drivers with blood alcohol concentrations of .08 or above, and countless are injured, according to MADD.