A Turning Point

A Turning Point

A look at the current fight against drunk driving and the future of ignition interlocks

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Alcohol impairment plays a role in an unnerving, unacceptable share of traffic fatalities in the U.S.: 30% in 2020, accounting for nearly 12,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Canada, the number is 18%—lower, but still a leading cause of motor-vehicle fatalities, according to Transport Canada.

It is a shocking statistic—yet it used to be much worse. In 1982, there were 9.1 drunk driving-related deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S., compared to a little more than three such deaths per 100,000 now, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. That’s solid progress, but the problem is that progress has mostly stalled: The number of fatalities per 100,000 has largely plateaued over the last 15 years.

“We have a number of countermeasures and interventions in place that are highly effective—but they’re effective at containing the problem, not reducing it,” says Rob Strassburger, CEO of the Leesburg, Virginia-based nonprofit Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, which represents automakers.

Now, however, the U.S. may be on the verge of another breakthrough, as law enforcement officials and state motor-​vehicle agency leaders step up their efforts to collaborate, and as technological advances promise to better equip drivers to make responsible decisions about when it is OK to drive—and when the smarter move is to call a taxi or rideshare.

The progress during the 1980s and 1990s stemmed from a number of factors ranging from increased public awareness of the dangers of alcohol abuse, to emerging interventions such as ignition interlock systems—devices placed in the vehicles of persons with DUI/DWI convictions that use a breath-based sensor to prohibit people from operating vehicles if their blood-alcohol levels exceed a certain threshold. Such devices thwart millions of attempts to drive drunk each year, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

But the interlock enforcement system is not perfect. First, different jurisdictions have different standards regarding which drivers need to install the devices—for example, some states require the devices after one alcohol-related conviction and some require them after several.

Second, different jurisdictions treat installed ignition interlocks differently. Some states are compliance-based, imposing consequences on drivers in the event of a positive test on the interlock device. Other jurisdictions install the devices and leave them attached to the vehicle for a prescribed period of time—often about six months—and then remove them, regardless of how many times the systems registered positive tests, thwarting attempts to drive drunk. Plus, some drivers who are supposed to have an interlock system do not actually have one, and face consequences only if they happen to be pulled over by law enforcement.

Finally, ignition interlock systems often pose an administrative coding challenge when drivers travel or relocate from one jurisdiction to another. Shared interstate codes are typically designed to flag license suspensions, revocations, cancellations—but none of those classifications applies to a driver with an ignition interlock system because their driving privileges are restricted rather than prohibited. It makes reciprocity a major roadblock.

New Best Practices

So when AAMVA convened an Ignition Interlock Program Working Group to assess and revise its guidelines for best practices related to ignition interlock, the group decided to tackle all three challenges. The new best practices, which are set to publish this fall, include model state legislation designed to promote statutory uniformity, as well as a recommendation that jurisdictions coalesce around a compliance-based approach.

“One of our strong recommendations is that jurisdictions have programs that are compliance-based—where you’re monitoring, and not just putting the device on for a certain amount of time and then taking it off,” says Angela Coleman, chair of the AAMVA working group and executive director of the Commission on Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program, which oversees Virginia’s ignition interlock program.

The goal, Coleman says, is to ensure that while ignition interlock devices are in place, “you’re actually not having any alcohol related violations—and if you do, there are consequences” such as extending the time drivers are required to use the device.

The group also devised a solution to the data-sharing problem by proposing two additions to AAMVA’s interstate systems. First is a new universal code, A42, that applies specifically to ignition interlock. Until now, U.S. jurisdictions have used state-level native codes to track drivers who are required to use the devices. The working group also is proposing a second addition: a new “Restricted Driver Status” that’s designed to apply to drivers who maintain driving privileges but with limitations. The status would apply to all drivers required to have ignition interlock systems as well as others with restrictions, such as drivers with unpaid tickets or who have failed to pay child support.

“This is an important step because it adds a tool to our toolkit that will help us move toward greater reciprocity,” says Jessica Ross, AAMVA reciprocity program director.

A New Technology, Decades in the Making

A little more than 20 years ago, a colleague approached Strassburger to tell him about a potential technology that could measure blood-glucose levels non-invasively. Soon the idea for the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety—DADSS—was born.

Why has the technology spent two decades in the lab? The early prototypes were large, unwieldy and expensive. Now, though, the costs and form factors have advanced to the point where Strassburger’s organization, the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, has licensed the technology for a breath-based version of the DADSS sensor, and he’s hopeful a commercial product will reach the market in 2023, with a touch-based version soon to follow.

Unlike an ignition interlock system, DADSS is intended as an option on all new vehicles, and for all drivers, rather than just those with past alcohol-related convictions. It is a way for drivers to test whether they’re safe to drive, likely with more lenient set points than an interlock system—perhaps at the legal threshold for drunk driving, a blood alcohol level of 0.08, rather than the ignition interlock threshold of 0.02-0.025.

Throughout the technology’s development phase, Strassburger’s team has operated under the assumption that DADSS technology would be marketed as an optional feature on new vehicles. But as part of the landmark infrastructure bill passed in late 2021, Congress directed the National Highway Safety Administration to include DADSS technology in upcoming versions of its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. That means at some point, the tech could be onboard every new vehicle sold.

A universal rollout of the technology would be a powerful tool in the fight against drunk driving. It’s also likely still decades from happening. That’s one reason why leaders such as Virginia’s Coleman are embracing the opportunity to tighten ignition interlock standards even as they hail the long-term potential of DADSS.

“The DADSS program is going to be a game changer. But while we’re moving toward that, jurisdictions have a big opportunity to tighten up our processes and how we manage participants who need to have the ignition interlock device installed—because you’re still talking about millions of cars that are already out here that won’t have the DADSS technology,” Coleman says.

Strassburger agrees, and stresses the need for advocates of DADSS and ignition interlock to work together. That, he says, is the best way to ensure that there’s real progress in the number of drunk-driving fatalities.

“We really do need to be speaking with one voice,” Strassburger says. “Otherwise it just gives an opening for those that really don’t want these technologies to wage mischief and work against them.”

Listen to AAMVAcast Episode 137 on the value of ignition interlocks with Debra Coffey of SmartStart.

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