When a technological nudge meets a legal mandate
Old-fashioned readers of Wednesday’s paper version of the New York Times might have noticed a full page advertisement opposing in-car breathalyzers (in certain situations, anyway), which also go by the name ignition interlocks. The ad, paid for by the American Beverage Institute, is part of an long-running political fight between restaurateurs and drunk driving awareness groups like Mother’s Against Drunk Driving over whether to shove technological nudges into automobiles. Typically, the interlocks work by placing a small alcohol sensor unit on car’s dashboard, which drivers blow into before starting the car. The car cannot be started if the driver’s blood-alcohol-content level is above a certain preset level.
One major part of the battle is over what to set that preset level at. The current legal limit is .08 percent BAC, although most ignition interlocks activate below that level (typically around .02 or .04 percent). Policymakers have adopted the ignition interlock, which can cost as little as $60 to install, as a way to monitor drunk drivers instead of suspending their licenses. At least 37 states have integrated ignition interlock and the sentencing process for DWI and repeat DUI offenders, and there is evidence that they have succeeded in reducing accidents by 40-90 percent. Their use remains limited, however. There are more than 1 million DUI arrests each year and only 100,000 ignition interlocks in use. And despite the success, revoking a drunk driver’s license tends to reduce crashes the most since it gets them off road completely.
But drunks are not the reason the American Beverage Institute is shelling out $180,000 for a piece of Times real estate. Ignition interlock is “a good idea for them,” the ad says, referring to drunks and then exploiting celebrities by showing three post-DUI mug shots of Green day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, actor Kiefer Sutherland, and NFL quarterback Steve McNair. “A bad idea for us,” the ad then says, referring to, well, non-celebrities, by showing happy pictures of tame, anonymous happy hours.
This part of the political fight centers around restaurateurs’ worries that states will begin passing laws requiring breathalyzers in all cars (New York and Pennsylvania introduced these laws in 2007). Industry lobbyists claim that the laws, combined with a .02 percent preset BAC level, will put an end to casual drinking at weddings, ballgames, and, yes, restaurants. Their fear isn’t just the ignition interlock, which has been around for almost 20 years. It’s a far more sophisticated alcohol detection technology being developed by the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration called dadss, which stands for driver alcohol detection system for safety. Dadss detects alcohol in people’s sweat through the steering wheel, in their eyes through cameras embedded in the rear view mirror, and in their breath (and maybe skin) through odor sensors. Someday maybe there will be sensors on the outside of the car that prevent people from even opening the car door! Public policy won’t be the only way these devices are introduced to the public. In the private marketplace, Toyota and Volvo have introduced pieces of the dadss-like technology in their cars, and Nissan and Saab plan to follow in 2010.
We invite readers thoughts on this debate. How many of these devices do you think car makers will sell? Should politicians wait to see what kind of public demand there is for these devices? (Restaurateurs are afraid that insurance companies will offer automotive discounts for cars with this technology. This seems bizarre.) What is the best libertarian paternalism alternative to universal ignition interlock laws? Should incentives be created to take advantage of their positive externalities? Should interlock laws should remain for DWI offenders? Or should they be expanded to others, like those convicted of DUIs?
A final point: Drunk dialing is a much less serious problem than drunk driving, but at the Nudge blog we’ve always wanted a cell phone interlock that would lock the keypad at a high BAC levels. It would certainly save us many embarrassing conversations with friends, loved ones, and even a few total strangers.
Addendum: As far as we know, dadss technology that locks drunks out of their car is not on the horizon.
Addendum Too: The New York Times publishes an op-ed about breathalyzer locks by two Duke policy scholars.