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Would a car-based breathalyzer reduce drunk driving?

Last year, lawmakers introduced the Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone (RIDE) Act, which would require automakers to make standard new technology that would gauge every driver's blood alcohol concentration before it would allow them to drive. It would be like having a permanent breathalyzer in your car.

Does this make sense? 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently decided to find out whether in-vehicle alcohol detection systems would save lives. Its objective was to estimate the number of traffic fatalities directly attributable to drunk driving and then to determine what strategies might reduce that number. The strategies included:

  • In-vehicle alcohol detection system that won't start the car if any alcohol is detected
  • In-vehicle alcohol detection system that won't start the car if the driver is above 0.08%
  • In-vehicle alcohol detection system required only for those with drunk driving convictions
  • In-vehicle alcohol detection system available only to fleets of vehicles

According to the researchers, all four of these options would save at least some lives that would otherwise be lost to drunk driving accidents. However, they also made clear that in-vehicle alcohol detection systems will not immediately solve drunk driving on their own.

Lives could be saved

A system that won't start the car if any alcohol is detected would be highly inconvenient for light and moderate drinkers. However, the IIHS estimates that it could prevent almost 12,000 deaths per year. If the system wouldn't start the car if the driver was above 0.08%, on the other hand, over 9,000 annual deaths could still be prevented.

Within three years of any mandate for in-vehicle alcohol detection systems, the IIHS estimates that the number of lives saved would be between 1,000 and 1,300. Within six years, that would be somewhere between 2,000 and 2,600 lives saved.

If the system was only required of those already convicted of DUI, on the other hand, it might only save between 800 and 1,000 lives per year.

A system that was only available to fleet vehicles might save between 300 and 500 lives per year.

It's difficult to say if these estimates are correct. It seems as if the researchers assumed that people with blood alcohol concentrations of less than 0.08% contribute significantly to DUI-related deaths. It's true that some drivers who are under the limit are still dangerous, but not all of them are. Could restricting light drinkers from driving really save an additional 3,000 lives per year?

In any case, there is the matter of whether people want to be tested for alcohol every time they drive their cars. Would you buy a car that wouldn't start if you smelled of alcohol?

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