U-M Study Says Devices to Stop Drunk Drivers Could Save 59,000 Lives

By Alexandra Mondalek | March 23, 2015

Putting technology that prevents drunk drivers from starting a vehicle into every car and truck in the U.S. could save 59,000 lives and $343 million over 15 years, according to a University of Michigan study. In addition, researchers concluded the country could avoid 85 percent of crash deaths attributable to alcohol-involved motor vehicle crashes during the 15-year implementation period.

U-M’s Injury Center and Transportation Research Institute said in the study, released Thursday, that cost savings from widespread use of ignition interlock technology could outweigh the expense of the devices after three years.

Photo: U-M Injury Center
Photo: U-M Injury Center

“The sheer numbers of preventable fatalities and serious injuries were surprising,” Patrick Carter, an assistant professor in emergency medicine at U-M Medical School and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Our analysis clearly demonstrates the significant public health benefit and societal cost savings” with making the devices standard equipment in all new vehicles.

Current ignition interlock technology prevents a vehicle from being started if a driver’s breath registers a certain amount of alcohol. The devices have been around since the 1960s, and in recent years some states have mandated their use for convicted drunk drivers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2013, the most recent data available, 10,076 people died in crashes related to drunk driving, a 23 percent decline from a decade earlier.

Younger Drivers Would Benefit More

Though the injury prevention benefit was apparent for all ages, drivers who are closes to the legal drinking age would likely be the most significant beneficiaries of alcohol interlocks.

Among drivers age 21 to 29 years, 481,103 deaths and injuries would be prevented, nearly 35 percent of total deaths and injuries for all age groups. Drivers less than 21 years old who engaged in drinking while driving would also benefit substantially, with 194,886 deaths and injuries potentially prevented.

“It is often difficult to penetrate these age groups with effective public health interventions and policies to prevent drinking and driving,” says Carter. “By capitalizing on recent technological advancements that make alcohol-detecting sensors seamless to the driver 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.”

The estimated injury prevention impact was derived first by modeling the proportion of the alcohol-related crashes that are preventable for all vehicles less than one year old and then repeating the analysis for each year of a projected 15-year timeframe. Cost saving were determined by applying existing crash-induced injury cost metrics.

Government-Industry Effort

The U.S. agency and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, a group that includes all major automakers, in 2008 formed the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety to develop “a first-of-its-kind technology” to detect and prevent intoxicated drivers.

The technology would be a “seamless” part of the driver experience, using biometric readings via fingerprint or infrared breath analysis.

“The goal is to develop a system that can accurately and reliably detect when a driver is above the legal alcohol limit and that could be offered as original equipment in new cars on a voluntary, market-driven basis,” Gordon Trowbridge, a NHTSA spokesman, said in a statement.

“It’s too early to predict” when the joint effort’s technology will be available, he said. The research phase is expected to continue through 2018.

The current devices are available only as after-market equipment.

“Automakers will have to be convinced, and make sure that the costs of the technology are something that consumers are willing to pay for and they want,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.

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