- - Monday, November 21, 2016

Beginning this month, all Washington D.C. residents convicted of drunken driving will be required to install an Ignition Interlock Device (IID) in their vehicle. IIDs, which are in-car breathalyzers that prevent vehicles from starting if blood-alcohol is detected, have previously only been required for repeat offenders or those with a high-blood alcohol content (BAC).

Supporters like the activist group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) say that expanding IIDs to all offenders would have an immediate effect on saving lives. “Ignition interlocks save lives by keeping convicted drunk drivers from repeating their decision to drive impaired,” argues MADD President Colleen Sheehey-Church.

While this is an appealing claim, a new analysis of 2015 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data by the American Beverage Institute suggests that expanding IIDs to all offenders in the District won’t reduce drunken-driving fatalities.

In 2015, roughly half (24) of U.S. states had all-offender IID requirements — 17 of which had been in place for three years or more — and half (26) did not. This allows for what researchers call “a natural experiment” to occur, where the relative effectiveness of IIDs can be analyzed by averaging the rates of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in each group of states.

If all-offender IID laws positively affect traffic safety, there should be a significant contrast in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities between the two groups. But no difference exists. The percent of total driving fatalities assumed to be due to alcohol impairment in 2015 was 29.8 percent in both sets of states. (Note: Given how these statistics are developed, in many cases the cause of the fatality may have been from factors unrelated to alcohol.)

This finding is further evidenced by the fact that Washington D.C.’s alcohol-impaired driving fatality rate was 26 percent for 2015, 13 percent less than the states with all-offender IID requirements.

Although the District has not mandated IIDs for all offenders until now, alcohol-related fatalities are lower than the national average. This begs the question: Why implement costly legislation that will have no measurable impact on safety?

The answer, of course, is that politicians and traffic safety officials want to be seen “doing something” about drunken driving. Even if this amounts to a waste of resources that could be better used on measures that actually make the roads safer. Think increased use of saturation patrols looking for drivers using their cell phones — a distraction that is estimated to cause more than one-quarter of all traffic accidents.

There is also evidence of IIDs making driving less safe. A California Department of Motor Vehicles study found in its pilot program that traffic accidents increased by up to one-sixth after IIDs were installed because their “rolling retest” requirement distracted drivers by forcing them to blow into the device while they were driving.

This isn’t to say that ignition interlocks will never support traffic safety. When compliance is enforced among the worst offenders, IIDs can be a useful tool to target the hardcore drunk driver.

But ensuring compliance is costly and logistically difficult. Nearly every state already has mandatory IID laws for high-BAC or repeat offenders, but without proper enforcement these programs are not achieving the desired results. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that only 15-20 percent of these offenders actually comply with their sentence and install the devices.

By widening the enforcement universe to those who have had one sip too many, the number of violators becomes unmanageable. Therein lies the latest example of a good idea ruined by thinking that extending the idea will have even more good results.

If the resources don’t exist to police this relatively small group of people, legislators should not expect better results when the mandate is widely expanded in scope.

District resources should be focused on increasing IID compliance among the high-BAC and repeat offenders who are responsible for more than 70 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

When it comes to regulation of human behavior, sometimes less is more.

Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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