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Disabling Drunk Drivers

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Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. It's a good rule for dealing with those who have proved themselves to be untrustworthy. And it's increasingly applied in a realm where a lack of dependability can be lethal: drunk driving.

Alcohol-impaired driving is a stubborn problem. The rate of fatalities in crashes involving drivers with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 or more has fallen by half since 1982. But there is still a huge amount of carnage.

In the United States, some 10,000 people die in such accidents each year. It's the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every four months.

In recent decades, efforts to curb drunk driving have grown — raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, stepping up police enforcement, lowering permissible blood-alcohol levels and stiffening penalties.

Social norms have also evolved. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded by a woman whose daughter was killed by a chronic offender, have fostered greater awareness and intolerance of a practice that used to be joked about.

But changes like these can prevent only so many episodes of driving under the influence. Some people just refuse to reform, and as long as they have free access to four wheels, they remain a menace.

So 15 states use another remedy. They force everyone convicted of DUI to install an ignition interlock before they can regain driving privileges. More than 20 other states mandate these devices only for the most serious offenders.

Congress may also get into the act. Legislation in the House of Representatives would give extra highway funds to states that mandate interlocks for all DUIs.

With an interlock, you have to pass a breath test before your car will start. Inducing chronic drunks to sober up is hard. But disabling their vehicles is not. It's also supremely cost-effective, at least for the rest of us — because the expense of installing and maintaining the device is borne by the guilty party.

States that have gone this route typically achieve big improvements. A 2011 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that "after these devices were installed, re-arrest rates for alcohol-impaired driving decreased by a median of 67 percent relative to drivers with suspended licenses."

There are, alas, ways for incorrigible boozers to defeat the device.

They can get a friend or family member to blow for them, or they can drive a different car. It's not a perfect check.

It's also not a lasting one. Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute (ABI), which represents restaurants, scoffed in an interview with USA Today that "in most states, the offender only has to keep the interlock for about six months. As soon as you take it off, recidivism goes back up."

True, a temporary fix works only temporarily — but the lives it saves are permanently spared. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that imposing the devices on all drivers with multiple DUIs would prevent about 100 fatal accidents annually. But if every DUI conviction carried an interlock requirement, from 600 to 800 deadly crashes would be averted each year.

The restaurant group complains that all-inclusive rules "deny judges the ability to distinguish between a driver one sip over the limit and high-BAC, repeat offenders." It would have us believe that seriously impaired is not seriously impaired.

In fact, notes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a person who is "one sip over the limit" is 11 times more likely to motor off into a deadly wreck than someone who stuck to Diet Coke. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety attests, "The hard-core group isn't the whole DWI problem or even the biggest part."

Anyway, the penalty is not public flogging, five years on a chain gang or life without parole. It's just an obligation for the offender to confirm he's fit to drive before starting his engine. It's a minimal inconvenience to the sober, but for the drunk, it serves as a potentially lifesaving safeguard.

When we give out driver's licenses, we trust the recipients to use the prerogative in a wise and safe manner. Those who abuse it by driving drunk shouldn't be barred from the road forever, but they should have to earn our trust. Like, every time they drive.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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