If state leaders adopt the most proven ways to reduce drunken driving, Texans will pay either in money, convenience or their sense of freedom.
Each potential solution comes with either a financial cost, such as money for more police, or a political cost, such as asking lawmakers to approve using sobriety checkpoints or to lower blood-alcohol limits for drivers, researchers say. Lower limits would come over the objections of the alcoholic beverage industry, and elected officials say checkpoints are an illegal search of innocent drivers.
“There are two underutilized strategies (checkpoints and a lower BAC) we have the science behind, yet this country won’t do them,” said James Fell, who worked at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for three decades before joining the nonpartisan research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.
Sobriety checkpoints, conducted frequently in 37 states, have been shown by studies in the past decade to reduce drunken-driving crashes, injuries and fatalities by 15 percent to 20 percent. Earlier this year, researchers with the World Health Organization estimated that each checkpoint saves between $1,500 and $3,000 when the cost of operating it is compared to the reductions in crash investigations, loss of life and property and other factors of crashes.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board in 2013 called for the legal blood-alcohol limit to be lowered to .05, citing evidence from numerous studies that drivers with a .08 BAC are more likely to die in a driving crash than someone with a lower limit.
A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released in January estimated that a BAC reduction to .05 would cause DWI-related crashes to fall by 11 percent. That would save around 1,800 lives a year in the U.S.
Science, however, doesn’t necessarily guide lawmaking.
The American Beverage Institute, a national industry lobbying group, calls lower BAC limits a “distraction” that won’t seriously curb drunken driving. Sarah Longwell, the institute’s managing director, said that the vast majority of DWI-related fatalities are caused by drivers with high BAC levels.
“It’s just very, very clear where the problem is,” Longwell said. “So we want to focus on solutions that target those high BAC repeaters who cause alcohol-related fatalities, and this law doesn’t do that.”
Disabling the car
The alcohol industry, researchers, elected officials and victim advocates do seem to agree on the more common use of interlock devices, a vehicle-installed breathalyzer test that won’t allow the car to start if it detects alcohol in the driver’s system.
The devices have been used for years for repeat and severe DWI offenders, notably those charged with a blood-alcohol content above 0.15.
Texas law allows judges to order some defendants to install interlocks to continue driving, and first-time offenders now can opt to keep driving with one of the devices.
About 500 vendors are approved to install 20 different types of interlock devices in Texas, with costs ranging based on the complexity and oversight of the system. Some vendors waive installation fees, and monthly costs vary from $65 to $90, paid by the driver to the companies that verify and track the devices.
“It is really one of the only treatments that is truly effective,” said Troy Walden, director of the Center for Drug and Alcohol Education at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Interlocks remain on the vehicle until the specifics of the sentence are carried out. In many cases, drivers need to have the interlock for a period of one or two years. In extreme cases, judges can order the person to use the interlock until they show the court proof of completion of an alcohol treatment program.
In its latest assessment of interlock use in Texas, Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimated the devices stopped 244,991 attempts to drive drunk from 2006 to 2016. In a 2016 study by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, researchers found interlocks were more effective at keeping drivers off the road than suspending licenses.
Since 2015, first-time DWI offenders in Texas can agree to have an interlock installed to avoid an automatic license suspension. Though in its early stages, the program has proved beneficial, said state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, who authored the legislation.
“We don’t have the data yet, but I do believe over the next five years, I think, you are going to see decreases in drunken-driving fatalities,” Villalba said. “Is it the panacea that will end drunken driving in Texas? No. But I would say it is a good first step.”
Walden said researchers are less confident about changing people’s long-term habits.
“While the ignition interlock is on the car, it is effective,” he said. “How effective is the use of that treatment in reducing the repeat of DWI once it is off the vehicle? Well, it really is no more or less effective. … It seems that folks go back to (drinking and driving) again.”