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Alcohol Ignition Locks Seen Preventing 83% of DUI Deaths

Sobriety test

(Oregon Department of Transportation, Flickr)

20 March 2015. A statistical projection shows some 59,500 deaths over 15 years could be prevented if new cars in the U.S. had alcohol ignition locks that stop drunk drivers from starting their engines. Medical and transportation researchers at University of Michigan, led by professor of emergency medicine Patrick Carter, published their findings yesterday in American Journal of Public Health.

Carter and colleagues sought to measure the impact alcohol ignition locks would have on traffic fatalities and injuries, as well as the economic costs of accidents, if new cars in the U.S. were equipped with these devices. Alcohol ignition locks, also called ignition interlocks, read the driver’s blood alcohol concentration by measuring alcohol in the breath. If the driver’s blood alcohol concentration is above a specified point, usually somewhat below the legal blood-alcohol limit, the device locks the ignition, preventing the car from starting.

Most alcohol ignition locks today are installed in cars driven by people with convictions for impaired driving, including those with suspended or revoked licenses, to protect public safety and prevent repeat offenses. The Michigan team tested the impact of a policy that required alcohol ignition locks installed in all new cars, and breath tests to start a car any time. The authors say advances in alcohol ignition locks make newer devices less obtrusive and easier to use.

The Michigan team drew their data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and National Automotive Sampling System-General Estimates System data sets for 2006 to 2010. Fatality Analysis Reporting System is an annual census with data on all traffic accidents in the U.S. with 1 or more fatalities. National Automotive Sampling System-General Estimates System samples some 50,000 motor vehicle traffic accidents from police reports in 60 regions in the U.S., where at least 1 injury, death, or property damage occur.

The researchers constructed an algorithm to model the effect of a policy requiring alcohol ignition locks in all new cars. The model estimates the effects of alcohol ignition locks installed in all new vehicles less than a year old on traffic deaths and injuries, as well as the economic costs of alcohol-related accidents. The team then repeats that process for each subsequent year adding another model year’s worth of new cars to the total national fleet. The process is repeated for 15 years, a standard period for implementing new technologies in a vehicle fleet.

Carter and colleagues found that for the total 15-year period, a policy of mandatory ignition locks would prevent 83 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities, numbering more than 59,500. The policy would likewise prevent 84 to 88 percent or about 1.25 million non-fatal injuries. Cost savings related to alcohol-related injuries were calculated at $342 billion, with costs for the ignition lock devices recouped after 3 years.

According to the team’s estimates, younger drivers would benefit the most from a policy of mandatory alcohol ignition locks. Among drivers age 21 to 29, more than 481, 000 deaths and injuries would be prevented, representing more than one-third (35%) of total deaths and injuries. Among drivers under the age of 21 — below the legal drinking age in most states — nearly 195,000 deaths and injuries would be prevented.

Carter believes a mandatory alcohol ignition lock policy is particularly important for these younger drivers, given they tend to be the most persistent age group to drive when impaired. “By capitalizing on recent technological advancements that make alcohol-detecting sensors seamless to the driver,” says Carter in a university statement, “and applying such technology more broadly to all newly built vehicles, we can actually have a substantial injury prevention impact among traditionally hard-to-reach high-risk populations.”

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