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.

5 Responses to “When a technological nudge meets a legal mandate”

  1. Stella Devine Says:

    In Australia, Virgin Mobile offer a service where you can lock out three numbers for an evening. For example, your boss, your ex-boyfriend and the guy you really like.

    dadss is a great idea in principle, but if it locks you right out of your car, I think the concept goes too far. What if your jacket is in the car? What if you need to sleep in there? A guy died of hypothermia here a few years ago after falling asleep, drunk, in the front yard under a bush.

    The BAC level here is 0.05, or 0.00 for provisional drivers. On regaining your licence after a drink driving conviction, you are on a provisional basis. Is there any way the dadss technology could be set to suit the licence of the driver of the car?

  2. Travis Walker Says:

    Mandating U.S. car makers to manufacture cars with dadss technology goes beyound the scope of libretarian paternalism. If I am responsible and do not drink and drive than I should not have to face the costs – in time and money – of having to buy a car equipped with such technology.

  3. Phil Armour Says:

    You could make a fairly convincing argument that the externalities involved justify non-libertarian paternalism, since drunk driving poses a serious danger to others. So universal ignition interlock laws may be a way to do it, provided the lockout level is at the legal limit.

    If you don’t want such a law, then it seems like having car manufacturers selling it amounts to a temporary “self ban” like the more permanent one in casinos. People, being sophisticated in their irrationality, may want to employ this commitment device to stop themselves from drunk driving.

    You could furthermore add to the libertarian paternalist part of it if you allowed the car owner to set the lock-out limit on their interlock (provided, of course, they first unlocked it with their sobriety…or even add a one-day delay, to prevent gaming the lock-out by waiting to have another drink until you’ve gone out to your car and reset the limit to be one higher, but I wonder how many would do this and whether these people would get an interlock anyway).

    You’d probably want a well-chosen default lock-out level, and that seems to be the problem the lobby would have with it. Why not put it at the legal limit? I mean, if we’re comfortable as a society with people driving anywhere under this limit, why should the lock-out level be anywhere lower? And how could the restaurateurs argue for anything higher? It seems pretty clear cut.

    And one final point: these devices not only change the costs associated with drinking; they also change the costs associated with driving, assuming that they’re somewhat complementary goods (outside of major cities, you need to drive to bars or parties). Perhaps this would increase demand for the sort of drunk taxi services previously mentioned on this blog, or for better public transportation, or for carpooling with a DD, all of which cut down on driving, which is probably also a boon for the (wait for the buzzword of our day) environment.

  4. Brian E. Simoneau Says:

    Users of Ignition Interlock Devices should be aware that alcohol readings are not always caused by alcohol in the user’s bloodstream, this is only one of three possible causes. Alcohol readings can also be caused by a malfunction of the interlock device or the device mistaking another substance for ethyl alcohol in the user’s bloodstream. In my practice as a Massachusetts Interlock Device Defense Lawyer, I have personally seen common products such as hand sanitizer, power bars, chewing gum, windshield washer fluid, anti-freeze, baked goods, and flavored coffee all be mistaken by interlock devices as alcohol. Interlock users should be aware of the possibility of contamination by these and other sources.

    All interlock users should take steps to protect themselves from false positive interlock readings. These steps include documenting any unusual occurrences with the IID, immediately reporting false
    interlock device readings
    , and not ingesting anything except water before or during interlock usage. One of the best things you can do when you get a false positive reading is to immediately go to a police station or hospital to get a comparison blood alcohol test.

    Ignition Interlock Devices should not be mistaken for the more reliable breathalyzer. Interlock devices, which use non-ethyl alcohol specific fuel cell technology, are not as reliable as evidentiary breathalyzers, which use infra-red technology to determine blood alcohol content. IIDs are not breathalyzers, but inexpensive lockout devices. Their primary purpose is not to collect scientific evidence.

  5. Alex Says:

    I would imagine it would be relatively easy to disconnect the interlock as they are universal devices and not programmed into the cars ecu (computer). If the interlock device is vehicle-specific I’d imagine that programmers would break the code very quickly and sell the modification at after-market auto tuners, just as they reprogram the ecu’s for performance.

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