If statistics alone could get people to change their behavior, drivers might pause before getting behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But as you know empirically—perhaps because you’ve been arrested recently for DUI, or perhaps because a loved one just called you from jail in emotional distress because of an arrest—it’s not so simple. Why do drivers make poor/reckless decisions? And what can be done about the problem of DUI—on a community-wide or city-wide level—to make things safer for everyone?
In this post and a subsequent one, we’ll take an unbiased (well, as unbiased as possible) look at the science and possible solutions.
You probably are already all too familiar with facts like these from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention:
• Every day, 28 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver; that’s one death every 51 minutes.
• In 2015, nearly 10,265 people died in alcohol impaired driving crashes; that’s nearly one-third (29 percent) of all traffic-related deaths in the U.S.
• Drugs other than alcohol (both legal and illegal) are involved in about 16 percent of motor vehicle crashes.
• In 2015, nearly 1.1 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. While that sounds like a large number, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Based on a random sampling of U.S. drivers, CDC researchers estimate that 111 million people drive under the influence of alcohol each year.
These grim statistics don’t even take into account: the pain and suffering caused by non-fatal DUI crashes; the psychological and economic toll such crashes inflict up on survivors and their families; the tremendous guilt and shame and suffering and financial issues that DUI drivers themselves face.
Based on these figures, almost everyone would agree that preventing DUI is a good thing. So why is it so hard to engineer solutions?
Drivers for the most part intellectually understand the need to avoid destructive behavior. And the system contains plenty of disincentives (which we’ve covered at length and ad nauseam on this blog) to drive DUI. Rather than blame millions of people for an uncontrollable moral failing—always a desperate strategy of last resort—perhaps we need to zoom out and take a look at problems with our DUI prevention systems themselves.
First, let’s take a look at the different approaches that regulators and others are trying to use. Again, even though we represent DUI defendants, we’re going to work as hard as possible to represent the data objectively.
All 50 states now have laws requiring the installation of ignition interlock devices (IID) on vehicles for drivers convicted of DUI. A growing number of states—including California—are either mandating them for first time DUI offenders or allowing judges to require their installation. (California law also allows a driver convicted of a non-injury, first offense DUI to choose whether to have an IID installed and retain full driving privileges or to skip the IID and get a one-year restricted license.)
How well do they work? A study in the April 2017 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at the effect of the devices on fatal motor vehicle crashes between 1982 and 2013.
Using data supplied by the NHTSA, the researchers found that state laws requiring IIDs for all DUI driving offenders were associated with a 7 percent decrease in the rate of fatal crashes involving drivers with a BAC of greater than .08. They also found an 8 percent decrease in the rate of fatal crashes when the BAC was greater than .15.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the states of West Virginia, Arizona, Louisiana and New Mexico all saw their DUI driving death rates drop dramatically after the passage of laws requiring all DUI offenders to install IIDs. MADD also cites studies that show interlock devices decreasing recidivism by DUI drivers by about two-thirds when the drivers actually install them on the vehicles.
The problem is, the drivers tend to go back to their original behavior once the IID is removed. (MADD suggests that coupling IIDs with some kind of treatment might have a more permanent effect.)
However, California gets mixed results in IID study
The California DMV did its own study of the efficacy of IIDs in reducing the rates of recidivism, but it reported mixed results. It concluded that “IIDs can be effective in reducing DUI recidivism, but not in all situations or for all offenders…IIDs are effective in reducing subsequent DUI convictions when they are actually installed on offenders’ vehicles, but that requiring judges to order offenders to install interlock devices and/or restrict offenders to driving IID-equipped vehicles generally has little effect.”
The California DMV study also found that rather than reducing the risk of crashes, the installation of an IID could actually increase that. “One possible explanation for the findings here is that drivers installing IIDs generally obtain restricted driver licenses, and so may drive more and thus have more exposure than drivers not installing a device, many of whom remain suspended,” according to the study.
(Other groups have suggested that the IID’s requirement for random tests while the driver is operating the vehicle could distract the driver enough to cause crashes.)
The California DMV said that while IIDs are not the “silver bullet” that will prevent all DUI incidents, they can be effective.
Researchers who analyzed the study data also recommended that:
• The state should develop a more effective way to monitor defendants ordered to install an IID.
• The state should allow repeat DUI offenders who install an IID to reinstate their drivers’ licenses earlier than those who do not (giving them an incentive to use an IID.)
• The state should allow police to impound vehicles without IIDs that are driven by people who are required to use an IID.
• The state should de-emphasize the use of IIDs for first time DUI offenders, since the study showed they don’t reduce DUI convictions for this group.
• The state should support current laws that require judges to order the installation of IIDs in certain instances.
Bear in mind that this list of “shoulds” comes from an interpretation of study data. Without longer, better, clearer science, however, it’s very difficult to know what kind of DUI prevention regimen works best and in what context. And new science can always disprove the conventional wisdom.
What’s ahead: Despite the mixed results of studies, the use of IIDs as a DUI-prevention tool is growing. MADD is a strong advocate of using IIDs for all DUI offenders, and the NHTSA is supporting this usage as well. Twenty-five states now mandate IIDs for first-time offenders.
New technologies could reduce DUIs
Technology could play a large role in reducing DUI. According to a CNN investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is encouraging continued research in DADSS—driver alcohol detection systems for safety. The DADSS.com website says it is “inventing a world without drunk driving.”
Researchers are currently looking at breath-based systems that “unobtrusively” measure the alcohol level in a driver’s naturally exhaled breath. (IIDs and breathalyzers, by contrast, require deep-lung breathing.) The driver would simply get into the vehicle and breathe normally, while embedded sensors measured the concentrations of alcohol and carbon dioxide. Developers are working on a way to distinguish between a driver’s breathing and passengers’ breathing.
Touch-based systems would measure blood alcohol levels under the skin’s surface by shining an infrared light through the fingertip. These systems would be integrated into current vehicle controls (start button or steering wheel) and take multiple, accurate readings in less than a second.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Injury Center and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute studied the impact of installing DADSS systems in all newly-purchased vehicles over a 15-year period. According to an article on the University of Michigan website, they concluded that the country could avoid 85 percent of crash deaths attributable to alcohol-involved motor vehicle crashes during this period, preventing more than 59,000 deaths and 1.25 million non-fatal injuries.
What’s ahead: These systems are still in the development stage, but the battle lines are already being drawn. On the one hand are organizations like MADD and government agencies such as NHTSA, that favor such developments; they say the systems could dramatically reduce the number of DUI drivers. On the other side are members of the hospitality industry and citizens concerned about the intrusion of government into yet another aspect of people’s lives. Critics also worry about the accuracy and precision of these new devices. After all, as students of the law of unintended consequences observe, revolutionary tech almost always has hidden downsides.
Any legislation or regulation requiring the installation of such devices on new vehicles is likely to trigger a hot political debate in the upcoming years.
Coming in Part 2: Lower BAC limits, more checkpoints and enforcement.