Driving Under the Influence: New Solutions to the Drunk Driving Problem

pour martinis in bar In 2013, more than 32 people died every day because someone decided to get behind the wheel when they’d been drinking. By now, you’d think people would know better! But even though the number of yearly drunk driving deaths has dropped dramatically over the past three decades, there are still countless people who aren’t getting the message. Indeed, one recent survey found that more than four million people may be driving drunk every month!

Traffic laws. Safety technologies. Public awareness campaigns. Education. We’ve already done so much to keep people from getting on the road under the influence of alcohol that it’s hard to believe there’s anyone who doesn’t know how dangerous drinking and driving is. At this point, how can anyone not know that driving drunk can get you arrested–or killed? To be sure, our efforts aren’t wasted; in this case, the price of safety on the road is eternal vigilance, and we should never forget that DUI fatalities are as low as they are only because we’re already doing so many things right.

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of a drinking age of 21 in New York, one of the first major victories in the fight against drunk driving. This week is also the beginning of a national “ Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over ” campaign designed to keep the roads clear of drunk drivers through the holiday season. In the spirit of these efforts, we want to acknowledge just how far we’ve come–and to take a look at some new solutions to help us get even more drunk drivers out from behind the wheel.

Ignition Interlock Devices: Pro and Con

driver with IID 

One potential approach to reducing the number of drunk drivers on the road is the establishment of Ignition Interlock Device (IID) policies for first-time DUI offenders. An IID is a device installed on a car’s ignition system that requires the driver to provide a breath sample to start the car; if alcohol is detected, the IID will prevent the car from running. Most IIDs include features to keep drivers from trying to circumvent the device, such as requiring them to provide breath samples at random intervals while the car is running. Increasingly, states are establishing policies that allow first-time DUI offenders to avoid a license suspension if they install an IID in their car (at their own expense); already, such laws are on the books in more than half of the states in the U.S.

This is a promising approach, as the use of IIDs is associated with a 50 to 90% reduction in recidivism among convicted DUI offenders. In particular, after New Mexico established its first-in-the-nation mandatory ignition interlock policy, it “experienced a 37% reduction in the statewide re-arrest rate, a 31% reduction in alcohol involved crashes, and 35% fewer DWI-caused fatalities over the last several years.” Moreover, research shows, offenders are more likely to accept IID installation as a punishment, even though they have to pay for it themselves: a survey of these drivers found that “80% said the sanction was fair, 83% agreed it was helpful in reducing drunk driving, 88% concurred it was helpful in avoiding another DWI, and 89% admitted the ignition interlock was effective in reducing their own drunk driving.”

One reason IID policies can be effective is because many drivers under a DUI license suspension drive anyway; after all, if someone is willing to take the risk of driving drunk, they’re probably willing to risk driving without a license. What IID policies do is give such drivers an incentive to comply with the law, allowing them to legally drive without risk while ensuring that they’re not getting on the road drunk.

hands in jail cell Unfortunately, some of the information about mandatory IID policies is more ambiguous. For one thing, while IIDs are effective in making sure drivers with a DUI conviction avoid further impaired driving as long as the device is required to be installed, some evidence suggests that after the IID is removed, arrest rates return to the same levels as those of other drivers. So while these policies may keep people from driving drunk in the short term, they may not be as effective a disincentive against future drunk driving as a costly penalty that causes the driver tangible hardship.

Moreover, because of the ways these policies are enforced, they often aren’t that effective in the short term, either. For one thing, even in places where such laws are in effect, the rate of installation remains remarkably low. For instance, a study in New York found that only 26% of people eligible for an IID had one installed in their car; this means that the rest either were failing to comply with the requirement or had agreed not to drive at all for the duration of the suspension (which they also may not have followed through on). Another problem is that, because it can take up to six months for a DUI offender’s case to be brought to trial, the requirement isn’t enforced immediately and offenders have plenty of time to break the law again.

So while IID policies have potential as a simple and practical new solution to the drunk driving problem, there are still a number of issues to resolve. Should administrative license suspension laws, which allow police to immediately suspend the license of anyone who fails or refuses to submit to a blood alcohol test, be updated to include an IID option? Should repeat DUI offenders face a longer or permanent IID installation period? Should the NHTSA force automakers to install IIDs in all new cars to prevent anyone, ever, from getting on the road when they’re drunk?

As ever, the first step is to change attitudes. The more people begin to embrace these devices and their potential to substantively reduce drunk driving, the more state governments and politicians will begin to see the wisdom of establishing smart IID policies and enforcing them effectively.


The Benefits of Ride-sharing Services

ride sharing  

Another new technology that promises to have an impact on the drunk driving problem is the introduction of ride-sharing apps like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. These services allow users to request a ride with their smartphone; the system then sends the closest available driver to pick the rider up and helps the driver choose the shortest possible route to get the rider to his or her destination. Because of the convenience and the generally low rates, ride-sharing services offer people who have been drinking an appealing alternative to taxis or public transportation that’s generally quick, reliable, direct, and inexpensive.

Now evidence suggests that the use of these services is already showing results. Complementing Uber’s own findings that the service reduced drunk driving arrests by 10% when it was introduced in Seattle, recent research from scholars at Temple University suggests that the presence of Uber may reduce drunk driving deaths in a city by more than 5%! The researchers compared DUI fatality trends in California cities where Uber had been introduced and in cities where it had not and found that, when the service was introduced, alcohol-related fatalities dropped by 3.6% to 5.6% within three months.

The authors of the study suggest that, while the increased convenience and availability of vehicles may play some role, it is ultimately Uber’s lower prices that are responsible for this effect: first, these impacts were associated only with the introduction of Uber’s low-cost service (UberX) and not with its premium service (Uber Black), and second, these impacts were not seen during peak usage periods, when Uber’s rates are higher.

giving keys to a designated driver 

In any case, it seems that many people are already beginning to regard such services as “designated-drivers-for-hire”: a survey conducted by MADD and Nationwide Insurance found that 23% of respondents already associate the term “designated driver” with ridesharing. At the same time, the survey shows, the percentage of respondents who say they have used a designated driver in the past year has grown by nearly 10%–to 71%!–in only two years.

An interesting implication of these findings is that when people go out drinking, they may be considering the cost of other options before deciding whether or not to drive; in short, it seems that drivers are weighing potential monetary costs against the potential risks of driving drunk. Thus, it’s worth asking whether local governments could more effectively reduce the rate of drunk driving by sponsoring or subsidizing such services–particularly at the times when drunk driving is most common–than by putting more police on the streets.

For now, if you plan to be drinking, it’s a good idea to keep these services in mind when making your plans for the evening: by staying off the road when you’re intoxicated, you make things safer for everyone. Of course, this shouldn’t be seen as license to drink irresponsibly! It’s always a bad idea to get so drunk that you can’t protect yourself in an emergency, and always a good idea to make plans to ride with a friend so you both can watch out for each other.

Changing Attitudes about the Drunk Driving Problem

As we think about new approaches to the problem of impaired driving, one thing we have going for us is the fact that we know more about what’s safe–and what’s dangerous–than ever before. For instance, just this year we’ve learned that a hangover can impair driving just as much as the drinking that caused it, and that even a single drink can significantly increase the effect of driver distraction, impairing concentration so much that a text message or dashboard notification could be all it takes to cause a driver to run off the road.

Yet one problem we continue to face is that people’s attitudes are failing to keep up with advances in our knowledge and improvements in our technologies. Changing individual attitudes is a key to success: as we discussed last week, one of the main reasons that MADD and groups like it were able to successfully inspire changes to drunk driving policies around the country was that they were able to get law enforcement agents and the public at large to start seeing drunk drivers as criminals and treating drunk driving as a crime.

gavel for judge 

Nevertheless, in many places, judges and prosecutors continue to treat drunk drivers more leniently than other offenders, despite the fact that public safety is uniquely endangered by drunk driving. In New Mexico, it’s gotten to the point that Gov. Susana Martinez has issued orders intended to ensure that the state’s DUI policies are actually enforced. The governor’s plan will require a heavier police presence along certain highways and make sure that drunk-driving offenders obey the conditions of their parole. In addition, to prevent the courts from treating drunk drivers too leniently, monitors will be placed in certain courtrooms to report on how judges and prosecutors handle drunk-driving cases. By improving enforcement and making punishment more guaranteed, such moves seem likely to invigorate the state’s campaign against impaired drivers.

On the other hand, the desire to punish drunk drivers as criminals may sometimes impede progress. For instance, one factor delaying the adoption and enforcement of IID policies is that, in many places, such punishments are seen as too lenient. In these cases, IID policies are seen as a way for criminals to avoid serious hardship, such as a significant fine, jail time, or the loss of the driving privilege, rather than as a useful tool for improving public safety. As a result, the potential effectiveness of such solutions are ignored, and when they are pursued, it’s often only half-heartedly.

Here’s the thing: on this very day, drunk drivers will be responsible for the deaths of some 30 or so people. Worrying about how stigmatized drunk drivers should be is beside the point; after all, for every 48 minutes, we spend arguing, someone else is going to die in one of the most stupid and senseless ways possible. At this point, all we should be focused on is figuring out what options we have and which decisions are most likely to make the roads safer. Far too many people have already died because, as a society, we’ve still yet to really reckon with the responsibilities that come with being a society of drivers. When it comes to driving, it’s about time that we put aside our personal prejudices and political battles and focus on the only thing that really matters: saving lives.

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