Technology that prevents a drunken driver from starting a vehicle holds the promise of greatly reducing alcohol-related deaths, the government and auto safety groups said Wednesday.
So far, however, the criminal justice system has not widely embraced alcohol ignition interlock devices because of long-standing questions about their cost and effectiveness, experts said at a meeting led by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The agency's chief, Nicole Nason, said technological developments and educating people in the legal system could help overcome many obstacles.
"They're not that easy to defeat, but there is a perception out there that they are," Nason said.
About 1.4 million people are arrested for drunken driving each year. Only about 100,000 interlock devices, however, are in use.
They require drivers to blow into an instrument that measures alcohol. A vehicle will not start unless the driver's blood alcohol concentration is below a set level.
Judges and legal experts said the systems need to work together with broader treatment programs for repeat offenders. "There is no silver bullet, one tool that is going to eliminate DUI offenses," said Georgia Judge Kent Lawrence, who started the state's first DUI/drug court in 2001.
New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana and Illinois have passed laws to require the use of the interlock devices for first-time offenders. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia allow the device for some offenders.
Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said preventing people with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 and higher from driving could save an estimated 9,000 lives per year.
The offender usually pays for the devices. They typically cost $100 for the installation and about $80 per month for monitoring.
Richard Freund, president of LifeSafer Interlock Inc., a Cincinnati-based company that markets the devices, said the equipment requires drivers to be tested about 10 times to 12 times per day.
Drunken driving killed more than 13,000 people last year. The level has held steady for the past decade and led to a renewed interest in the technology. For example, Nissan Motor Co. has shown experimental systems that measure alcohol levels in a driver's sweat from sensors in the gearshift.
"We are really working on a vaccine for drunk driving. Not on the drunk, but on the vehicle," said Chuck Hurley, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.