Why "Drunk-Proof" Car Laws May Not Be The Best Way To Keep Drunk Drivers Off The Roads

The car of the future may not be one that can fly, transform into a boat or get 500 miles to the gallon, but one that checks drivers’ blood alcohol levels.

Last month, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., reintroduced legislation to fund research into adding built-in sobriety tests to vehicles. There are already devices that connect breathalyzer tubes to cars’ ignition mechanisms, but these are generally installed only by court order in vehicles owned by individuals who have previous drunk-driving convictions. The program, championed by Udall and Corker, seeks a faster, less obtrusive option for the general public. Laura Dean-Mooney, President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which supports the legislation, said, “This is not an ignition interlock device that you would find on a convicted drunk driver’s vehicle today.”

Emerging technologies that could be developed through the program include devices that determine a driver’s blood alcohol level when he or she touches the steering wheel and sensors that gauge sobriety based on the driver’s eye movements. Any means of testing sobriety would be tied into the vehicle’s ignition mechanism so the car would not start if the driver was intoxicated.

The bill, known as the ROADS SAFE Act of 2011, would provide funding for research, directing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to “carry out a collaborative research effort…to continue to explore the feasibility and the potential benefits of, and the public policy challenges associated with, more widespread deployment of in-vehicle technology to prevent alcohol-impaired driving.” It does not address the possibility that such technology, once developed, might be made mandatory.

However, it is obvious that Udall, at least, is interested in paving the way for an eventual mandate. He has already introduced separate legislation to mandate the use of ignition interlock technology for all people convicted of drunk driving offenses. In a press release, he said the technology would eventually “prevent – and hopefully eliminate – drunk driving crashes.” To eliminate crashes, Congress would need to ensure that all drivers had the devices installed. The media have been quick to assume that today’s research will lead to a mandate down the road. ConsumerAffairs.com went so far as to print an article about the bill under the headline “Congress May Require ‘Drunk-Proof’ Cars.”

Of course, another way to have drunk-proof cars (more or less) is to have a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol use by drivers, similar to the expectations for private and commercial pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration forbids pilots from flying within eight hours of consuming any alcohol at all, or with a blood alcohol measurement of .02 per cent or higher – just one-quarter the alcohol level permitted by states before a driver is considered impaired. Because it is possible to have a blood alcohol level higher than .02 even eight hours after consuming alcohol, I was taught as a student pilot to allow 12 hours “from bottle to throttle.” A pilot who reports for duty with a blood alcohol level above .04 is subject to having his or her pilot’s licence revoked.

The government conducts around 11,000 random inspections annually and typically finds around a dozen violations, or about one in every 1,000 tests, USA Today reported last year. Many airlines have even stricter policies than the FAA. It all adds up to a zero-tolerance culture, and despite the rare lapses, it works. The last commercial air fatality linked to a pilot’s alcohol consumption occurred in 1977.

My first reaction on hearing of the ROADS SAFE Act was to see it as another manifestation of the nanny state. If we put DAD (Driver Alcohol Detection) devices in all cars, we all will have to pay for them, even though only a small number of drivers are irresponsible enough to make them necessary. This, at the least, is somewhat unfair and annoying.

But there are at least two other ways to look at it. One is the approach taken by Udall, MADD and other activists, who would argue – not unreasonably – that the cost and inconvenience of such safety equipment is easily justified by the innocent lives it would save.

The other viewpoint is to consider the many thousands of 18- to 20-year-old citizens, drivers and non–drivers, who do not enjoy the right to walk into a bar and order a beer that my generation (briefly) held in the glory days of the Baby Boomers. Just as in my time, these young adults can serve (and die) in the military, vote, sign contracts, hold many elective offices, marry and, in many states, adopt children. MADD was a major force in enacting the laws raising the drinking age, on the theory that this would reduce drunk-driving accidents and save young lives.

But these laws came with their own cost. We have turned most students on American college campuses, and most of their off-campus age cohort, into criminals. We have exposed many of their parents to serious charges for permitting, say, a college-age son or daughter to host a New Year’s party where alcohol is served, even if nobody drives home. We have turned local police into government agents who chase young people through the woods at night because somebody might have brought a six-pack or a keg.

So I’m willing to make a trade. If researchers come up with a practical way to put DAD in every new vehicle, I’ll pay for it and use it – but let’s either move the age of adulthood up to 21 for all purposes, including military enlistment without parental consent, or let’s bring the drinking age back down to 18. The small intrusion on my liberties is justified by the greater restoration of the liberties of others.

Maybe we’ll get safer roads, too.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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