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Questions to ask MADD before every car has a Breathalyzer

By Paul McNamara on Mon, 11/20/06 - 9:38am.

(Update: MADD's initiative -- in particular, the Breathalyzer-in-every-car trial balloon -- has gathered generally positive reviews, but a few voices are also asking the practical questions. Here's a sampling of what's being said.)

A campaign spearheaded by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) will kick off today aimed at changing state drunken driving laws to require that the cars of even first-time offenders be equipped with ignition interlocks that prevent the vehicle from being started by an inebriant. Moreover, some are advocating that the concept be taken further: They want every automobile to come with passive Breathalyzer-like technology that will screen the alcohol level of every driver.

"When 40 percent of all our crashes are alcohol-involved," one advocate tells the New York Times this morning, "I don't think it's going to be that difficult of a sell."

Let's beg to differ. Here are just a few off-the-top-of-my-head questions that will make that sell a challenge:

There is, of course, the straightforward civil libertarian question: Why should those who have never been convicted of drunken driving be compelled to prove they are innocent before being allowed to operate their own cars? This baby seems to have been tossed with the bathwater long ago in a country where drug testing has become routine, but you can expect the die-hards to be heard anew.

How far down the technology slope are we sliding? Certainly, any such standard automobile equipment could include a record-keeping component. Will attempted drunken driving become a crime? There could be no denying the deterrent effect of such a new law. Three rejected start attempts and you lose your license? Five and the ignition is permanently disabled? Certainly the advocates will make the case than an ounce of prevention beats even one more highway fatality.

What about networking? Will the data be wirelessly transmitted to your local police department? Why not? It would clearly help law enforcement target and keep tabs on the recidivists. And the cops will need to know when to pull your license for that third strike.

Even advocates of ignition interlocks acknowledge that they are easily circumvented -- just find a sober person to lend you a clean puff -- so technologists are looking for better answers. Among the possibilities, according to the Times story, are a Breathalyzer that attaches to a key chain and won't let the car start if it senses too much booze, an appliance that beams light on a driver's skin and analyzes the light that is returned, and special steering wheels and gear-shift levers.

(Update: Apparently there are all kinds of problems getting these things to do what they're supposed to do ... beginning with getting them installed, according to this press report from New Mexico.)

All of which raise more questions.

Will starting someone else's car become a crime if that person is later found to be driving drunk? What will be the impact of such laws on our already overburdened court systems?

Why not add GPS to the technological cocktail? Park within 50 yards of a restaurant, bar or sports stadium and the blood-alcohol tolerance level that your car will accept is lowered from .08 to .06 -- just to help you resist the temptation of taking that one for the road. Couldn't those tolerance levels be adjusted for holidays? Super Bowl Sunday?

Will parking valets go the way of the dinosaurs? Restaurants and bars are already legally on the hook for serving sloppy drunks, but will they want to take on the added liability of actually starting the cars of their patrons? I'm thinking they won't. ... Or does the technology have to progress from the ignition to the transmission in order to keep a drunk from operating a car that has been started by a sober person?

Anyone believe this technology will work perfectly? Didn't think so. What about false positives? Will my prescription medications render my car a useless hunk of junk? What happens when the technology simply malfunctions? Who will have the expertise to fix it? The mechanic on the corner? Will there be special repair facilities? And how do you get the car there if it won't start?

That's just two cups of coffee worth of questions. I'm sure you can add to the list.

More coverage of the issue:

New Mexico is gosh-darn proud to be leading the way on this one.

Here's the MADD press release from this morning.

The Chicago Tribune editorial board wants to see the interlocks used more liberally with those who have been convict, but doesn't address the issue of what they call "the gadgets" becoming standard equipment.

There's a blue-ribbon panel involved, so I feel better now.

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