POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 12, 2012
WASHINGTON » Every state should require convicted drunken drivers, including first-time offenders, to use devices that prevent them from starting a car's engine if their breath tests positive for alcohol, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.
The ignition interlock devices — already required for all convicted drunken drivers in 17 states, including Hawaii — are currently the best available solution to reducing drunken driving deaths, which account for about a third of the nation's more than 32,000 traffic deaths a year, the board said.
Drivers breathe into breathalyzers mounted on the vehicle's dashboard. If their breath-alcohol concentration is greater than the device's programmed limit — usually a blood alcohol concentration of 0.02 percent or 0.04 percent — then the engine won't start.
The board also urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to speed up its research effort with automakers to develop systems that can determine a driver's blood alcohol concentration using infrared light when the driver presses an ignition button. The vehicle won't start if the alcohol concentration is too high.
The five-member board made the unanimous recommendations after reviewing evidence that an average of 360 people a year are killed when drivers turn the wrong way into the face of oncoming traffic on high-speed highways.
The board's study analyzed data from 1,566 crashes from 2004 to 2009, as well as nine wrong-way collisions NTSB directly investigated. In 59 percent of the accidents, wrong-way drivers had blood alcohol levels more than twice the legal limit, researchers said. In another 10 percent of the crashes, drivers had alcohol levels between 0.08 and 0.14. The limit in most instances is 0.08.
In just the past week, 11 people were killed and nine seriously injured in wrong-way driving accidents in eight states, the board was told.
The board's recommendations are likely to be strongly opposed by the alcohol industry. The American Beverage Institute, which represents about 8,000 chain restaurants in the U.S., said mandatory ignition interlock devices should be reserved for "hard-core" drunken drivers.
"You don't punish somebody going five miles over the speed limit the same way you do somebody going 50 miles over the speed limit," said Sarah Longwell, the institute's managing director.
Older drivers also appear to be part of the wrong-way driving problem, researchers said. Drivers over age 70 were overrepresented in the accidents reviewed in the study, accounting for 15 percent of the wrong-way drivers compared with only 3 percent of the right-way drivers they collided with, researchers said.