We’ve come a long way from the days when drunk drivers were simply driven home with little more than a slap on the wrist. In 1980, more than 21,000 Americans died in alcohol-related traffic accidents. Since then, we’ve cut annual drunk driving deaths by more than half. Unfortunately, that progress is leveling off.
Despite increased public awareness campaigns, stiffer penalties for drunk driving, greater use of ignition interlocks, and safer vehicles, more than 10,000 individuals died in alcohol-related crashes in 2013. In fact, the proportion of traffic fatalities blamed on drunk driving has remained remarkably steady at around 31 percent since the mid-1990s. As former Mothers Against Drunk Driving President Katherine Prescott has said, the drunk driving problem has been reduced to “a hard core of alcoholics who do not respond to public appeal.”
Everyone agrees drunk driving remains a stubborn problem. Where we disagree is how to keep these dangerous drivers, often with alcohol abuse disorders, off our roads.Drivers who get behind the wheel with dangerously high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels—think drivers who have had six or more drinks before getting behind the wheel—continue to pose the greatest threat to traffic safety and are responsible for roughly 70 percent of drunk driving deaths each year.
We’ve also done a pretty terrible job of keeping multiple drunk driving offenders off our roads. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show nearly one-third of all DUI arrests and convictions involve repeat drunk driving offenders.
Remarkably, rather than focusing on this core problem, MADD has chosen to focus its anti-drunk driving campaign on two key components: the required installation of ignition interlocks on the car of every single drunk driving offender and the eventual installation of alcohol sensing technology in all cars.
The research supporting the use of ignition interlocks—breathalyzers that stop offenders from starting their cars if alcohol is detected—as a method of keeping offenders from driving drunk is shaky at best. If offenders actually install interlocks on their cars, the device does reduce the rate at which they re-offend. But once the interlock is removed (usually after 6 months to a year), offenders who had an interlock are just as likely as those who did not to be arrested for another DUI.
Not having a lasting impact on behavior is far from the only problem with interlocks. States have been woefully unsuccessful in ensuring that offenders required to install interlocks on their cars actually comply with the law. NHTSA estimates national interlock compliance rates to be anywhere from 15-20 percent. That means a large number of dangerous offenders are driving without any law enforcement supervision.
There is a better solution. Instead of centering punishment on the vehicle, the 24/7 Sobriety Program focuses on changing drunk drivers’ behavior and stopping them from consuming alcohol in the first place.
The program requires drivers convicted of a second or subsequent DUI offense to submit to twice-a-day tests to determine they haven’t been drinking. If they miss a test, or fail a test, the consequences are immediate, usually around 24 hours in jail. It’s even been used to monitor drugged drivers—a key failing of ignition interlocks.
Data show this approach is remarkably effective. A peer-reviewed study of South Dakota’s first-in-the-nation 24/7 Sobriety Program shows a 12 percent reduction in DUI recidivism—considerably better than interlock programs—and a 9 percent reduction in domestic violence recidivism.
So far, only a handful of states have adopted this innovative and effective approach. But Congress has the opportunity to expand the program’s reach. Instead of only giving states highway funding for impaired driving countermeasures if they impose mandatory ignition interlocks on repeat offenders, Congress should allow states to add 24/7 sobriety as an option.
Ignition interlocks can still be an effective tool, but by giving states the option and incentive to add the 24/7 Sobriety Program as an additional tool we can more efficiently target and treat the alcohol abusers who persistently flout the law.
It’s time for Congress to stop putting all our eggs in the interlock basket and adopt a more comprehensive approach to traffic safety.