Alcohol-Sniffing Ignition Interlocks Could Save Nearly $23 Billion & 4,000 Deaths Per Year

March 20, 2015

For years, elected officials and federal agencies have debated whether automakers should be required to equip new vehicles with alcohol ignition interlocks -- devices that verify a driver's blood alcohol level before she's allowed to start the car. Adding them would surely increase the cost of a new car, but how much would they save?

According to researchers at the University of Michigan Injury Center and the U-M Transportation Research Institute, the answer to that question is nearly $23 billion and 4,000 lives, per year.

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Several years ago, Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Bob Corker (R-TN) introduced the Research of Alcohol Detection Systems for Stopping Alcohol-related Fatalities Everywhere (or ROADS SAFE) Act. Though the bill didn't require automakers to install alcohol ignition interlocks on new cars, it aimed to spend $60 million over the course of five years to develop and improve such devices. Unfortunately, the bill never went anywhere.

Two years later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pushed lawmakers to mandate interlocks. Sensing the gridlock on Capitol Hill, the agency didn't insist that they be placed on all new cars, just on the vehicles of those convicted of drunk driving -- even first-timers. 

Last summer, though, it appeared that NHTSA was planning a more aggressive approach, working with two suppliers to develop interlocks that could be placed on all new vehicles. No word on how that work is going, though one of the two suppliers -- Takata -- has bigger issues to contend with just now.

Meanwhile, some smartphone app developers are hoping that the U.S. will follow France's lead and require motorists to carry breathalyzers in their cars. Dozens of booze-sniffing apps are currently working their way toward phones.

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Of course, when it comes to legislation and regulation, officials often prefer to be swayed by cold, hard facts. (Often, but not always.) And so, the U-M Injury Center and U-M Transportation Research Institute pulled out some fancy math formulas to project how many lives and dollars alcohol ignition interlocks could save over a 15-year period.

The team reached its conclusions by compiling stats on the proportion of annual, alcohol-related crashes relative to crashes as a whole, focusing its attention on accidents that took place in vehicles that were less than one year old. It then repeated the analysis for a total of 15 years, deriving a decade-and-a-half's worth of projections.

Here's what the team found:

  • Over the next 15 years, 85 percent of automotive fatalities linked to alcohol could be avoided. That works out to be more than 59,000 lives saved, or an average of nearly 4,000 per year. (The exact number of annual fatalities would likely be much higher in the beginning, as alcohol-related traffic deaths now hover around 10,000 per year, or roughly one-third of total roadway fatalities.)
  • In addition, 1.25 million nonfatal injuries could be avoided over the next decade and a half -- an average of more than 83,000 annually.
  • Younger drivers -- America's kids -- would see the biggest benefit. Interlocks would prevent roughly 195,000 deaths and injuries among drivers under 21. More impressive, they would prevent 481,000 injuries and deaths among drivers between the ages of 21 and 29 years -- about 35 percent of the total number of fatalities and injuries projected for the 15-year study period.
  • But here's the kicker: these prevented deaths and injuries would generate huge savings. In total, the U.S. would save $343 billion over 15 years, or nearly $23 billion per year

"But won't the development and installation of all those interlocks cost taxpayers money?", you ask. According to the researchers, the cost would be recouped after only three years. 

The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the U-M Injury Center. One could argue that the three have a keen interest in generating alarming statistics around drunk driving. Then again, if America did as the study suggests, all three organizations could find themselves out of work, which clearly doesn't weigh in their favor.

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We wouldn't be surprised if breathalyzer-like devices were soon mandated on new vehicles -- unless, of course, autonomous cars (a) arrive soon and (b) really take off, obviating the need for alcohol ignition interlocks. Because self-driving vehicles can do a lot of things, but drinking isn't one of them.


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