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Health Threat

CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden shares strategies for making our roads safer, including ignition interlocks for those convicted of impaired driving.

Since taking the reins as Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, Dr. Tom Frieden has worked to control a wide range of health threats. Since motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death among Americans ages 1 to 54, traffic safety has made the list of his challenging health priorities.


“Drinking drivers are involved in almost one-third of all deadly crashes in the United States. This percentage has not dropped since the mid-1990s, and this is unacceptable.”

New York City Department of Health photo

Dr. Frieden recently spoke with AAA about the CDC’s strategies for making the roadways safer.

What are the biggest factors contributing to the high toll of motor vehicle-related injuries and fatalities?

Drinking and driving is still a big problem. In 2011, almost 10,000 men, women and children were killed in crashes involving a driver who had been drinking. Drinking drivers are involved in almost one-third of all deadly crashes in the United States. This percentage has not dropped since the mid-1990s, and this is unacceptable.

Another factor is that not everyone wears their seat belt or uses child safety seats. In 2011, most drivers and passengers (84 percent) did buckle up in the car. But of the people who died in crashes that year, more than half were not wearing seat belts at the time of their crash.

Everyone can better protect themselves by wearing a seat belt on every trip, no matter how short. It is also important to make sure children are always properly buckled in a car seat, booster seat, or seat belt, whichever is appropriate for their age, height, and weight.

What are some things that we can be doing to reduce impaired driving and prevent these crashes?

Proven strategies include the use of publicized sobriety checkpoints, which are traffic stops where law enforcement officers check for drinking drivers. Ignition interlocks also are effective. These devices prevent the vehicle from starting if someone with a blood alcohol concentration above a specified safe level (usually 0.02 percent to 0.04 percent) tries to drive.

Effective policies that are in place in all 50 states include specifying an illegal blood alcohol concentration of .08 and above for adults and a zero tolerance law, or no detectable alcohol, for drivers under the minimum legal drinking age of 21. Minimum legal drinking age laws are also effective in preventing alcohol impaired driving, and all 50 states have this policy in place.

It seems as though many states are already using those tools; is there a way that we can be using them better to increase their effectiveness?

Publicized sobriety checkpoints make the roads safer for everyone because they prevent drinking and driving. But 13 states still don’t permit checkpoints, and most states that permit them don’t use checkpoints as frequently as they could.

Ignition interlocks are effective in reducing impaired driving when installed on the convicted drivers’ vehicle; however, not all states require all convicted drivers to install them. One way to increase the number of ignition interlocks installed is to make them mandatory for all drivers convicted of driving while intoxicated, including first-time offenders. As of the end of 2013, only 21 states require the installation of an ignition interlock for first-time DWI offenders (including Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi). There is a lot of room for improvement.

Why are ignition interlocks better than other alternatives, such as license suspension or jail time?

Ignition interlocks, unlike jail and license suspension, allow convicted drivers to continue with their daily life and regular activities, including going to work and being available for family responsibilities.

Although license suspension has been shown to reduce re-arrest for impaired driving, many convicted drivers continue to drive without a valid license. In fact, a study in two communities found that between 36 percent and 78 percent of drivers with suspended licenses still drove their cars.

Ignition interlocks allow drivers the ability to legally drive their vehicles, because using the device prevents driving after drinking. This is a benefit that license suspension and jail time make impossible.

Won’t people circumvent the punishment by not installing the devices or driving a different car?

Convicted drivers may prefer installing an interlock on their vehicle when the other options presented are jail time or electronically monitored house arrest.

Of course, it is possible for the person to drive a different car, rather than the car in which their ignition interlock is installed. Even so, ignition interlocks, while installed on a convicted driver’s vehicle, decrease repeat DWI offenses by about two thirds.

What are other strategies you recommend to enhance compliance with ignition interlocks?

There are several. These include finding ways to help low-income drivers cover the costs of ignition interlocks, installing interlocks as close to the time of arrest as possible, following up to determine if the driver has installed their interlock, and monitoring the interlock log for signs that the driver is trying to start the vehicle after drinking.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share with our members?

Everyone can take simple steps–such as always buckling up, making sure children are buckled in the right car seats, and never drinking and driving–to help protect themselves and their passengers. We can and must do more to help everyone stay safe on the road.

July/August 2014 Issue


Facts about Impaired Driving

  • In 2012, there were 10,322 fatalities in crashes involving a driver with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher, accounting for 31 percent of total traffic fatalities for the year.
  • The 10,322 fatalities in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2012 represent an average of one alcohol-impaired driving fatality every 51 minutes.
  • A 2012 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey found that nine out of 10 respondents felt that impaired drivers posed a serious threat to their safety.
  • In 2011, drivers in fatal crashes with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher were seven times more likely to have had a prior conviction for impaired driving than were drivers with no alcohol.
  • About one-third of all drivers arrested or convicted of driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence of alcohol are repeat offenders – people who have previously been convicted of impaired driving.
  • More than 1.4 million drivers were arrested in 2010 for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. This is an arrest rate of 1 for every 149 licensed drivers in the United States.
  • Alcohol-related crashes in the United States cost the public an estimated $114.3 billion in 2000, including $51.1 billion in monetary costs and an estimated $63.2 billion in quality of life losses. People other than the impaired driver paid $71.6 billion of the alcohol-related crash bill, which is 63 percent of the total cost of these crashes.
  • Ignition interlocks can reduce the rate of re-arrest among drivers convicted of DWI by a median of 67 percent, making them more effective than other prevention methods. Drivers with interlocks also had fewer alcohol-impaired driving crashes than drivers who had their drivers’ licenses suspended because of a DWI conviction.

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