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The Fight Against Drunk Driving

by Aubrey Fox, Nov 19, 2007
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Eugenio Cidron drank so much at a party at Chelsea Piers last December that he mistook the bike path along the Hudson River for the West Side Highway. After driving his silver BMW for a mile along the greenway, he plowed into Eric Ng, an avid bicyclist, and killed him.

Earlier this month, Cidron, a first-time offender, pleaded guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge. At sentencing, he faces between 3 and a half and 10 years in prison. Ng’s friends and family are left to grieve his death. “He was just a real joyous, smart, sweet good person,” Ng’s friend Ryan Nuckle told the New York Times.

Eric Ng is one of 463 New Yorkers who were killed by drunk drivers in 2006, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Last year, over 13,000 individuals were killed across the United States by drivers who were legally drunk. To put that number in perspective, a total of 3,866 American military have been killed to date in Iraq, according to antiwar.com.

In recent years, New York State has passed a series of strict new laws that increase penalties for drunk driving and provide alcohol and substance abuse treatment for first and second-time offenders. Perhaps as a result, the state has modestly reduced the number of drunk driving deaths, with alcohol-related fatalities in New York declining by 5 percent from 2005 to 2006. New Jersey had a 13 percent increase during that same period. Nationwide, drunk driving deaths have remained relatively constant since 1999, frustrating government officials, public health experts and advocates.

At the same time, advocates like Mothers Against Drunk Driving believe that New York could be even more aggressive in keeping repeat drunk drivers off the road by following states like New Mexico, which requires that all convicted offenders have ignitioninterlock systems in their cars. These systems keep the car from starting unless the driver breathes into a breathalyzer device and is not drunk. Advocates would also like to move the focus from prosecution of drunk driving offenses to prevention. This poses a major challenge since a majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involve a driver, like Eugenio Cidron, with no prior drunk driving arrests.

The bottom line is that even more dramatic steps might have to be taken to tackle the problem of drunk driving. What is less clear is whether the political will exists for such fundamental change.

New Laws in New York

In the last two years, New York has passed tough new legislation against drunk driving. On November 1, new felony penalties for aggravated vehicular homicide and aggravated vehicular assault went into effect. These allow judges to put drunk drivers in jail for up to 25 years in cases involving vehicular homicide and 15 years in cases involving vehicular assault. The changes also expand the use of ignition interlock devices. This law does not apply to Eugenio Cidron, who was arrested before it took effect.

More sweeping legislation passed in 2006. It included a tougher penalty for those who refuse to take a police-administered breathalyzer test, along with a requirement that offenders with a blood alcohol content of above .18, well above the .08 threshold that defines intoxication, install an ignition interlock system while they are on probation.

In addition, the law requires that every person arrested for driving while intoxicated be screened or assessed for a drug or alcohol abuse problem before their case is resolved. Drug treatment is mandatory for those who test positive and are not sentenced to jail. The goal is to “cast a treatment-centric net over the population of [driving while intoxicated] defendants,” says Michael Yavinsky, the chief court attorney for the Criminal Court of the City of New York.

The Crusade Against Drunk Driving

These new measures come on the heels of over 25 years of aggressive public policy measures designed to tackle drunk driving. For the first two decades, the result was nothing less than a public health miracle.

In 1982, 26,173 Americans died in alcohol-related traffic crashes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. By 2002, the number dropped to 17,448 deaths, a 30 percent decrease.

Raw numbers don’t tell the whole story, however. Adjusting for the total number of miles driven, deaths dropped from 1.64 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1982 to .63 in 2002. New York’s rate is about .50 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

This means that more than 150,000 drunk driving deaths were prevented in a 20-year period, according to Ralph Hingson, director of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “That’s more than the combined effect of safety belts, air bags, and motorcycle and bicycle helmets,” says Hingson.

Hingson attributes this success to two factors: the rise of advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the development of a “body of scientific literature” that documents what works and what doesn’t in preventing drunk driving.

MADD was launched in 1980 by a California woman, Candy Lightner, after her 13-year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. At the time, 60 percent of all driving deaths were alcohol-related, yet lax social norms about drinking and driving created a “wink and nod” attitude about the problem. As the organization grew – by the end of 1984, MADD had 330 chapters in 47 states – it created a powerful constituency for change. That year, MADD helped persuade President Ronald Reagan to sign the Uniform Drinking Age Act, which denied federal highway funding to states that did not raise their legal drinking age to 21.

Another development that would prove critical was the establishment of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1975. With this system, every person involved in a fatal car accident is tested for alcohol and drug use. Using the collected data, public health experts can make state-by-state comparisons over time, as well as test the effectiveness of new enforcement initiatives. For example, reporting system data was used to predict that increasing the drinking age from 18 to 21 would result in 700 to 1,000 fewer drunk driving deaths per year. In addition, advocates like MADD use the information to shine a spotlight on states slow to change laws and public attitudes.

MADD’s longest campaign involved convincing state legislatures to lower the legal standard by which a person is defined as intoxicated, from .10 to .08. According to MADD, a 170-pound man who has four drinks in an hour on an empty stomach would have a blood alcohol level of .08.

States were slow to adopt the new standard. Only six states had changed the law by 1990.Then in 2000, President Bill Clinton adopted the new standard nationwide: As with the Uniform Drinking Age Act, states had to comply with the new level or risk losing highway funding. New York complied by November 2003, one of the last states in the country to make the change.

Stalled Progress

After these advances in the 1980s and 1990s, progress stalled. The number of alcohol-related driving fatalities (which includes anyone with a drink in their system, regardless of whether they are legally intoxicated) has increased slightly from an all-time low of 16,572 in 1999 to 17,602 in 2006. “We’ve seen no progress in 10 years; we’re completely stalled,” Susan Ferguson, a researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told the New York Times.

In response, MADD has launched an aggressive push for the expanded use of ignition interlock devices. “Our goal is to get interlocks on all convicted offenders within five years,” says Chuck Hurley, MADD’s executive director. The logic is straightforward: 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers who have their license revoked continue to drive anyway, including 500,000 first-time offenders. “What we’re doing now,” says Hurley, “is a catch and release program.”

Currently, New Mexico and Arizona are the only states that require first-time drunken driving offenders to install the interlock system. In its first year after implementing the new law, New Mexico’s drunk driving fatality rate dropped by over 11 percent. Offenders with interlock systems have a 69 percent lower re-arrest rate than those without the devices, according to research prepared by Richard A. Roth of the University of New Mexico.

The interlocks reportedly cost $125 for installation and carry a monthly fee of $60 to $75.

New York’s recent law expands the use of ignition interlocks, though it is far less comprehensive than the approach used in New Mexico and Arizona. The devices are now required for anyone granted a so-called conditional license who was convicted on an aggravated driving while intoxicated charge. This means that their blood alcohol level was .18 or higher at the time of their arrest. Someone with a conditional license can drive only under certain circumstances and can be barred from driving complely if he or she does not comply with those limts.

In addition, the law closes a long-standing loophole that allowed individuals who had to have the ignition interlocks to evade the requirement by using a company car or a car owned by a spouse or friend. The current law stipulates that the devices be installed in all vehicles operated – as opposed to only those owned – by the offender.

According to Ron Bergstrom, of the New York State Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives, which is responsible for overseeing the ignition interlock program, there are currently 1,050 units in place for drivers covered by the law. In New York City, ignition interlocks have been mandated in only three cases according to Bergstrom, although he expects that number to increase with the adoption of the new law. Nassau and Suffolk counties are the state’s biggest users of the program.

The devices have been somewhat difficult to obtain. There were only 21 qualified vendors in place across the state last year (the number is now 75).

Other problems exists as well. Many probation departments believed that people could fool the devices by having a friend or companion blow into the tube. New technology that photographs the driver whenever a reading is taken may solve that, however. Another potential problem involves false positives: the technology may prevent even sober drivers from starting their car if it makes a false reading.

The Limits of the Locks

Even if New York were to require installation of an ignition interlock system for all offenders, it would only affect a minority of drunk drivers. Federal government research shows that only 8 percent to 33 percent of intoxicated drivers involved in fatal crashes have prior drunk driving arrests. (The 33 percent comes from Minnesota, the only state that keeps lifetime driving records on file. Most states only record arrests going back three years.)

The case of Eugenio Cidron testifies to the limits of relying on enforcement strategies to combat drunk driving: Aside from a traffic ticket and a seatbelt violation from 2003, he had a clean driving record before he hit Eric Ng, the New York Post reported.

Most drunk drivers manage to avoid the police entirely. Only one in 87 are arrested, according to Hurley.

One option would be to require that ignition interlock devices be installed for all drivers, not just those who have been arrested for a drunken driving offense. In theory, that would have prevented Cidron from starting his BMW. The goal would be to create a “passive safety” device that works unobtrusively, like an air bag. According to the New York Times, car manufacturers like Nissan and Toyota are experimenting with skin-sensing technology embedded in a car’s steering wheel or headrest. The universal use of such technology would let us “make drunk driving the public health equivalent of polio,” said Hurley.

Car safety experts and government officials say this is a long way off. The key is convenience. As Susan Ferguson of the Insurance Institute has said, “We don’t want the soccer mom dropping kids off, going to the grocery store and the preschool, and having to blow into something every time.”

Concerns about reliability and intruding on people's right to drive has led government officials to tread carefully when talking about universal ignition interlocks. “To be frank, we are years and years away from [reliable] technology,” Nicole Nason, the administrator of the National Highway Safety Administration, told the New York Times.

There are less tangible issues as well. Americans are very sensitive about any restrictions being placed on their cars.

Despite such obstacles, MADD has continued to push for the expanded use of ignition interlocks, using an incremental approach. They hope to convince fleet operators (such as taxis and truckers) to adopt the systems. New York State Assemblymember Sam Hoyt is introducing legislation to require the installation of the devices in all school buses. Hurley is also confident about the prospects for rapid technological change, pointing to a recent agreement between the United States Department of Transportation and major car manufacturers to devote $10 million to researching ignition interlocks.

Underlying the debate about preventing drunk driving is the tradeoff between safety and convenience. Clearly, there are things that New York can do to reduce the number of drunken driving deaths. Whether citizens are ready for these changes is another question entirely.

Aubrey Fox is project director of Bronx Community Solutions, aimed at changing the Bronx court system’s approach to low-level crime.


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