University researchers show in-car alcohol tests prevent crashes

By Nabeel Chollampat, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 19, 2015

The combination of drinking and driving could soon be a thing of the past.

University researchers from the Injury Center and the Transportation Research Institute published a study Thursday exploring the potential effects of alcohol ignition interlock devices if they were installed in every newly purchased vehicle in the United States over a 15-year period.

The devices, currently in development by the federal government, can either operate as a Breathalyzer that determines if the driver is under a certain blood alcohol content, or through the steering wheel using a transdermal approach that reads BAC through the skin. They are currently only mandated for use by repeated driving under the influence offenders, and do not allow the car to turn on if the driver’s blood alcohol level is over a specific percentage.

The study concluded that with the devices, the United States could avoid 85 percent of alcohol-related motor vehicle crash deaths over the 15-year period, meaning over 59,000 deaths and 1.25 million non-fatal injuries.

Dr. Patrick Carter, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine, led the research, and Dr. Rebecca Cunningham, professor of Emergency Medicine and Public Health, and Jonathan Rupp, Carol Flannagan and Ray Bingham of the TRI, co-authored the report.

Carter said he pursued this angle of research because drunk driving is a pressing health issue.

“It’s important to note that alcohol-involved motor vehicle crashes are a significant public health problem,” he said. “This would be one way of preventing a drinking driver from getting behind the wheel and causing non-fatal and fatal injuries.”

The researchers used data from two data sets, Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the National Automotive Sampling System’s General Estimates System, covering 2006 to 2010. FARS calculates fatalities from every motor vehicle crash in the country, while NASS calculates a probability sample to create a national ranking of crashes.

Models extrapolated from this data over a 15-year period allowed researchers to reach their conclusions about the devices.

The study also found that the 21-29 age group is the most vulnerable to drinking and driving, and the addition of these devices would prevent nearly 480,000 deaths and injuries specifically within that age group.

“(The 21-29 age group) is really the hardest age group to intervene with,” Carter said. “They’re recently legal drinkers and they often get behind the wheel after drinking, but they’re the hardest to intervene.”

Ignition interlock devices typically cost around $400, but according to Carter, the group’s models estimate that the United States would recoup the upfront cost of the devices in savings within three years of implementation.

Rupp, the TRI research associate professor, said the research and the devices would go a long way toward solving driver safety issues.

“People have been trying to implement safety systems in vehicles for 50 years, and there’s still people who are killed in crashes, so addressing one major portion of that, being able to reduce that, is going to have a huge societal benefit,” Rupp said.

For the plan to be feasible, Carter said the devices must become more advanced.

“There’s potential if the technology advances far enough that the device is seamless to the driver experience,” he said. “It may not be that the first way to go for this is to mandate, it might be that maybe it’s a condition for getting a discount on your car insurance and it’s a voluntary action, or parents putting it in their teenagers’ vehicles.”

Public acceptability and technological advancement appear to be the two biggest obstacles to overcome, according to the researchers.

Rupp said the technology has the potential to become more socially acceptable than predicted.

“There have been a lot of surveys about how socially acceptable the costs are, and I believe in one survey 40 percent of people said they’d want an alcohol interlock device in their car if it were under $500,” he said.