So You Think You Want A New Car…

Ahhh that new car smell. Sirius satellite radio. Plush leather seats. Burled walnut dash. Cool new hands-free parallel parking. Pre-installed breathalyzer, a permanent ignition interlock device if you will. What? Wait a minute!

Could such technology actually prevent OWIs? According a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health the answer is yes.

Installing devices in new cars to prevent drunk drivers from starting the engine could prevent 85 percent of alcohol-related deaths on U.S. roads, saving tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars from injury-related costs, according to a new analysis. Over 15 years, as older cars without a so-called alcohol ignition interlock come off the roads, sobriety-screening systems in new vehicles could avert more than 59,000 crash fatalities, more than 1.25 million non-fatal injuries and over $340 billion in injury-related costs, the study in the American Journal of Public Health concludes.

“Alcohol interlocks are used very effectively in all 50 states as a component of sentencing or as a condition for having a license reinstated after DUIs, but this only works for the drunk drivers caught by police and it doesn’t catch the people who choose to drive without a license to avoid having the interlock installed,” said lead author Dr. Patrick Carter, an emergency physician with the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.

Carter and colleagues used U.S. records of traffic accidents and fatalities for a four year period, 2006 to 2010, to determine how many involved drunk driving and then estimated how many of these incidents could be avoided in the future by fitting new cars with alcohol-interlock devices, which detect blood-alcohol levels and prevent drivers above a certain threshold from starting the car. Then, they estimated the numbers of deaths and injuries that could be prevented in the first year that all new cars sold had screening systems, and assumed it would take 15 years for older models to be replaced with new vehicles. Carter concluded that “over 15 years, 85% of crash fatalities and 84% to 88% of nonfatal injuries attributed to drinking drivers would be prevented.” This amounts to 59,554 lives. They also estimate that this will save an estimated $342 billion in injury-related costs.

There’s no way to know how accurate Carter’s estimates are or will be if pre-installed ignition interlock devices become standardized in all new vehicles. Questions regarding the technology itself are unanswered: will the pre-installed ignition interlock devices be as accurate in determining the BAC of a driver as a breath or blood test used by law enforcement (breathalyzers can fairly inaccurate)? will the technology need to be regularly calibrated like breathalyzers used by law enforcement and current ignition interlock devices? will data be stored such that it can later be used against a driver in a OWI case?