A Breathalyzer In Every Car

Should I be very pleased that some people are working hard to insure that every car contains a breathalyzer that will prevent drunks from driving? This, from the NY Times:

Officials say interlocks for first offenders are not a panacea but will reduce repeat offenses. They say the next step will be a program to develop devices to unobtrusively test every driver for alcohol and disable the vehicle. The automaker Saab and a medical equipment company already have devices that may be adapted for that job.

On one hand, this approach is sensible. Assuming the devices are effective (that is, can’t be circumvented and don’t incorrectly exclude non-drunks), why wouldn’t we want to keep intoxicated people off the road? The reality is that police-enforced drunk driving laws don’t work very well. Relatively few drunk drivers are caught – except after an accident. Automated breath tests can not only save lives; they can prevent people from getting criminal records.

On the other hand,something about this technology makes me nervous. I concede that this might be irrationality – the product of too many years in criminal defense. One possible downside is that malfunctioning machines might block legit drivers from using their cars. Another is that it will prevent people from driving in a few situations where we would prefer that a (slightly) drunk person drive. Imagine that a person with .12 blood alcohol content is in his farm house with his wife. If she has a medical crisis, it will take an ambulance 30 minutes to get there, and another 30 minutes to get to the hospital. The husband can get her to the hospital in 30 minutes total. Assuming the risk of an accident at .12 BAC isn’t too high – and I suspect that, empirically, the risk is rather small – don’t we want our farmer to drive? Of course, this sort of situation is likely to be pretty rare.

I also worry a bit about the slippery slope. Will police seek to monitor these breath tests to catch people who even attempt to drive drunk?

Try as I might, however, I can’t convince myself that these devices are bad news. I like any invention that reduces the number of criminals, and the costs of crime, without filling up our prisons.

UPDATE: On a related note, Elizabeth Joh has an interesting piece considering some technologies that might reduce the role of police discretion in traffic stops.

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3 Responses

  1. Friend says:

    The worst part is that it’s pretty simple to have a sober friend (or stranger) blow for you if you’re drunk. It happens pretty regularly. That’s been the big roadblock in terms of effectiveness.

  2. Brian Duffy says:

    Talk about intrusive… an example of the nanny state at its worst.

    For more examples of this sort of thinking, take a drive in the UK. There’s a useless traffic sign approximately every 3 feet in some areas.

  3. David S. Cohen says:

    I left that article pretty certain that the big mover behind this drive has to be the manufacturer of these devices.