Special Report

Alcohol Nanny Breathalyzers

Mothers Against Drunk Driving wants to make them mandatory in every new car.

By 8.7.07

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"Pre-emptive war" got us into a real mess in Iraq. So maybe we ought to think twice before adopting similar measures when it comes to traffic law. Specifically, when it comes to an idea floated by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to require that all new cars be fitted with an ignition interlock that can detect alcohol in the driver's system -- and shut the car down if it does.

Several large automakers (including GM, Ford, Toyota and Honda) also support the idea -- and are working on ways to get these things into new cars, maybe within the next two or three years, if not sooner.

Sounds OK in principle -- sort of like the idea of liberating Iraq. The devil's in the details, though.

The technology itself is pretty straightforward. Key fobs are being developed that will be capable of detecting blood-alcohol concentrations either through contact with a person's skin or by sampling his breath. These are basically miniaturized, higher-tech versions of the interlocks some states already require convicted DWI offenders to install in their vehicles as a condition of being permitted to retain their driver's license. The chief difference between the two is that the systems envisioned for the general public are what's known in the car business as "passive" systems -- meaning the driver doesn't have to do anything consciously to be screened by the interlock. The court-mandated systems force the driver to blow into what amounts to an in-dash Breathalyzer before the engine will start.

So what's the problem? After all, we don't want drunks driving any more than we want a beret-wearing strong man ruling Iraq. But here's the rub: These little gems may impose de facto Prohibition by making it impossible to drive home if you've consumed even very small amounts of alcohol. Not enough to render you "impaired" (let alone "drunk") as far as the law is concerned. Just enough to trigger the interlocks.

The legal threshold defining "drunk" driving is already quite low. In all 50 states, you are over the line when your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) reaches .08. (This is down considerably from the previous threshold, which was .10 BAC or higher. Thirty-plus years of statistics reveal that it is drivers with BAC levels of .10 or higher who are most likely to have an actual accident; drivers with BACs under .08 typically give no outward evidence of being liquored up. Instead, they're caught in "sobriety checkpoints." Most would -- statistically speaking -- make it home without incident absent the checkpoints.) And you can be arrested for "impaired" driving with a .06 BAC in most states. In 22 states, in fact, you are considered "presumed to be intoxicated" with a measured BAC of .05 or below.

Now here's where the interlocks get tricky. They are not perfectly accurate and must be set within their margin of error. That margin of error is a "swing" of .02 percent BAC. And that means you might be unable to drive home in your 2009 model car or truck after having had as little to drink as a single glass of wine over dinner since that's all it takes to bring many people within range, BAC-wise, of the transistorized Alcohol Nanny.

Megan McDonald of the American Beverage Institute writes: "With interlocks in place, the debate over BAC limits would be moot. Technology -- not democracy -- would decide." Nor the law, for that matter -- since the much-lower threshold of the interlocks would effectively trump the higher legal thresholds defining DWI and DUI.

MADD's CEO Chuck Hurley calls the interlocks a "vaccine on the car," but the question on the table is whether we want to support outlawing any drinking at all before driving. If you've had a glass of wine or a beer with dinner before driving, you may have consumed alcohol, but you are neither "drunk" nor "impaired" by any sane definition of either term. There is no medical or other data establishing a correlation between modest consumption of alcohol and either increased likelihood of motor vehicle accidents -- or actually having an accident.

Chuck Hurley and other zealots want to impose their neo-Prohibitionist agenda on America by equating any drinking and driving with drunk driving. That's just nonsense. The interlocks Hurley wants installed in all new cars would treat the driver who enjoyed as a glass of wine over dinner and the lush who slurped down a fifth of cheap gin the same. A little to drink -- or a lot -- you're a "dangerous drunk" and must be kept off the roads.

The problem with drinking and driving, however, is (and has always been) the relative handful of louts who get into a car with BAC levels well above .08 -- not the "social drinker" with a BAC half that high who rolls through a "sobriety checkpoint." Or buys a new car with an alcohol-sniffing interlock.

And besides, what's to prevent the clever drunk who is determined to drive no matter what from simply having a sober buddy start the car for him? Or simply disabling the thing? Remember seat belt interlocks? All they did was add expense and hassle to new cars. And were easily gotten around.

Hurley and others should keep their focus on the "real killers" -- drivers with BAC levels above .08 (who also tend to be the ones who have multiple DWI offenses on their rap sheets, by the way) -- instead of demanding that anyone who has had anything alcoholic to drink before driving be considered a threat to public safety.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.