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DWI could be a thing of the past

Alcohol has been a factor in 30% of U.S. roadway deaths every year for the past decade. Meanwhile, police arrest about 1 million people a year for alcohol-impaired driving. Systems that can detect the percentage of alcohol in the driver’s blood and prevent the vehicle from moving if it is higher than a predetermined limit could slash those numbers.

Citing information from one of my best sources of traffic safety information, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), they are saying alcohol-detection systems that stop people from drinking and driving could prevent more than a quarter of U.S. road fatalities and save upwards of 9,000 lives a year, a new study shows.

“We haven’t made much progress in the fight against drunk driving since the mid1990s,” says Charles Farmer, IIHS vice president of research and statistical services and the author of the paper. “This is something that could put a real dent in the alcohol-impaired driving problem.”

Systems that can detect the percentage of alcohol in the driver’s blood and prevent the vehicle from moving if it is higher than a predetermined limit could slash alcohol impaired crashes. The technology is already available in the form of an ignition interlock attached to a breath-testing unit. Many jurisdictions require these interlocks for people convicted of alcohol-impaired driving.

But, to gain driver support, the current ignition interlock technology must be improved to be accepted. In a 2009 survey of U.S. drivers, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said they would support the installation of similar systems in all vehicles, as long as they were fast, accurate and unobtrusive. Manufacturers such as Volvo have experimented with offering alcohol-detection systems as optional equipment. A public-private partnership called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety project is also road-testing a passive alcohol sensor that detects the driver’s blood-alcohol content by measuring the ambient air in the vehicle.

Farmer determined that 37,636 crash deaths, or around a quarter of the total number of crash deaths during 2015-18, could have been prevented if the most impaired drivers’ BAC levels had been below 0.08 percent (the legal limit in most states). That works out to an average of 9,409 lives saved every year. If the same drivers had a BAC of zero, nearly a third of the total deaths, or about 12,000 a year, might have been averted.

The fastest way to reach any of those milestones would be through federal regulation, and bills designed to eventually make alcohol-detection systems mandatory safety features have been introduced in both the House and Senate over the past year. But there are ways to encourage manufacturers to make the technology standard, as was done with side airbags and automated emergency braking. IIHS and similar groups could encourage manufacturers to make alcohol-detection more readily available by requiring such systems for top safety ratings, for example.

Given the potential for saving lives and injuries, let’s hope they do just that.

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