Image: Sobriety Test © Doug Menuez, Getty Images

Mothers Against Drunk Driving believes technology can do what state laws, public opinion and stern car-insurance penalties have not: Keep first-time drunken drivers from repeating their offenses.

While drunken-driving laws across the United States have changed radically since MADD's founding in 1980, progress stalled in the mid-1990s.

"Initially, states focused primarily on either repeat offenders or first-time offenders who had a very high blood-alcohol content of 0.15 or 0.20," says Anne McCartt, the senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

MADD, the IIHS and other groups were pushing hard on many fronts, encouraging police, lawmakers and courts to:

  • Impound and even sell convicted drunken drivers' vehicles.
  • Revoke drunken drivers' licenses for longer periods.
  • Toughen penalties for first-time offenders, including mandatory jail time.
  • Require convicted drunken drivers to use an ignition interlock device, a piece of high-tech auto equipment meant to prevent a drunken driver from operating a vehicle.

Five years ago, proponents of stiff punishment for drunken-driving offenses decided to recalibrate their approach, says Frank Harris, the state legislative affairs manager at MADD. They stepped back to see what worked.

By far the best results came from ignition interlock devices. That's why safety advocates have recently put most of their energy into making sure drunks can't start their cars.

An ignition interlock device is an in-car Breathalyzer. The driver blows into a device the size of a chunky mobile phone. If a measurable amount of alcohol is detected, the car simply won't start.

You can't drive drunk if you can't drive

Data like these are what convince the advocates:

  • New Mexico's 6-year-old law requiring ignition interlock devices for all convicted drunken drivers, including first-time offenders, is credited with a 35% reduction in drunken-driving deaths.
  • Arizona, with a similar law, has reduced drunken-driver deaths by 46% since 2007.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reviewed research on interlock devices and concluded they reduce re-arrest rates by 67%. The CDC now recommends the devices for every convicted drunken driver.

Since states make the drunken-driving laws, McCartt and Harris say, the push now is to persuade every legislature to require every single person convicted of drunken driving to use an ignition interlock device for at least six continuous months.

Such laws would apply to everyone convicted of driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or more. There would be no exceptions, not even for first-timers.

"From MADD's perspective, as long as that offender is learning to drive sober and the car is not being driven drunk, then the role of the ignition airlock is effective," says Harris.