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Updated technologies should keep drinkers off the roads

July 13, 1999

In the 30 years since the concept was developed, 35 states have decided to require convicted drunk drivers to equip their cars with ignition-interlock devices that are supposed to prevent anyone who's inebriated inebriated from starting the vehicle. Now Pennsylvania is considering adding its name to the list, an action we heartily enbdorse.

We had some doubts about the program's effectiveness when we first heard about it, because a Washington County defendant was able to defeat such a device with a container of pressurized air. But experts testifying before the Pennsylvania legislature say the newest generation of these devices makes such trickery unlikely to succeed.

One new device requires drivers to blow for six seconds, suck air out of one, then hum for another second. Other versions of the same machine require a driver to hum a certain time or perform an elaborate series of pauses and breaths. There's even a rolling re-test built in, which requires the driver to undergo the test again after the car has been running some time.

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The only way to defeat such devices, according to one manufacturer, is to have a sober passenger alongside the drinking driver, performing the test at specififed intervals.

The manufacturer's representative seemed to think it was unlikely a sober person would willingly do such a thing for a drinking driver, but we're not so sure. An abusive alcoholic might coerce a spouse or a even a child to do just that. Pennsylvania lawmakers need to write the law so that attempting to defeat the technology or forcing someone to do so would also be a crime, with penalties in addition to those meted out for driving while intoxicated.

Whatever bugs need to be worked out are worth the trouble it will take. The National Highway Safety Transit Administration predicts that three out of five Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash their lifetimes. Two years ago 631, or 40 percent of Pennsylvania's 1,557 auto crash deaths were alchohol-related. If using this technology can improve those odds, then passing this legislation should be a no-brainer.

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