News Release
March 17, 2016

In-Car Breathalyzers for DUI Offenders Curb Drunk-Driving Deaths by 15 Percent

So-Called "Ignition Interlocks" Save Lives with Similar Success as Airbag Laws, Penn Study Says

PHILADELPHIA — State laws that require drivers who’ve been convicted of drunk driving to pass a breathalyzer-type test before starting their cars saved an estimated 915 lives between 2004 and 2013, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The findings represent a 15 percent reduction in drunk driving-related deaths compared to states without legislation requiring DUI offenders to use “mandatory ignition interlock.”

The research, led by Elinore J. Kaufman, MD, a student in Penn’s Health Policy master’s degree program and a resident at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical College, used National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data to compare alcohol-related crash deaths in the 18 states that required ignition interlocks for all those convicted of DUI as of 2013 with the number of alcohol-related crash deaths in states without mandatory interlocks.

States with mandatory interlock laws saw a 0.8 decrease in deaths for every 100,000 people each year – which is comparable to lives shown to have been saved from mandatory airbag laws and the 21-year minimum legal drinking age combined (0.9 and 0.2 lives saved per 100,000 people, respectively).

Car crashes involving alcohol make up 30 percent of vehicular fatalities, resulting in 11,000 deaths each year. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates that for each of the million drunk driving convictions each year, there are 88 previous instances of drunk driving.

"These laws are proven feasible and effective, and they are low hanging fruit for the remaining half of states, including Pennsylvania, that don’t have this protection in place yet,” Kaufman said.

Following increasing support for interlock laws in other states, Pennsylvania’s House of Representative’s Transportation Committee is considering legislation – SB 290 – that would require first-time DUI offenders with a blood-alcohol content of .10 or higher to install these devices.

“Our findings show that by preventing intoxicated drivers from starting their vehicles, these ignition interlock laws can directly prevent drunk driving and save lives,” Kaufman said. “We are encouraged by growing public and governmental support for expansion of interlock programs and innovative ways to use this technology to prevent more lives lost resulting from drunk driving.”

Previous research on mandatory interlock laws focused on recidivism rates, but the new Penn study serves as the first national analysis of the impact of a universal interlock requirement on alcohol-involved crash deaths.

“Although crashes and crash fatalities decline, we’re not seeing a significant reduction in those involving alcohol,” said the study’s senior author, Douglas J. Wiebe, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology in the department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology and a senior scholar in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics.  “We’re encouraged by the increasing number of states enacting mandatory interlock laws since 2013 and hope these findings advance public health conversations aimed at saving more lives.”

The researchers note that the variation in state ignition interlock laws and enforcement of those laws further illustrates the importance of taking a comprehensive approach to ensuring driving safety.

While mandatory minimum drinking age and interlock laws have shown progress in curbing drunk-driving incidence, the authors call for further steps, including new strategies to encourage alternative forms of transportation and changing “alcohol culture” and social behaviors to reduce binge drinking.  

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $5.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 18 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $373 million awarded in the 2015 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2015, Penn Medicine provided $253.3 million to benefit our community.


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