TAKING CARE: A motorist takes a drink while a breathalyser and his keys lie on the counter. Image: Shutterstock.
NEW YORK - Installing devices in new cars to prevent drunk drivers from starting the engine could prevent 85% of alcohol-related deaths on US roads, according to a new analysis.
Tens of thousands of lives could be saved as well as billions of dollars from injury-related costs.
In South Africa a national survey of transport fatalities conducted at South African medico-legal mortuaries in 2004 found that 50% of drivers who died in road traffic collisions tested positive for alcohol. It did not give data on how many were over the then legal limit.
After suggestions about changing the legal blood-alcohol limit in South Africa to zero, Dr Gavin Kirk of the Western Cape Forensic Pathology Service said proposed changes to the limit would do nothing to reduce the appalling death toll on the country's roads.
Kirk said that while drunk drivers were undoubtedly an important factor in road deaths 0% readings were no way to improve the situation because there was no evidence to support the theory, which appeared to be merely an attempt to "do something" about the situation even if it made no sense.
The report said the problem lay with heavily intoxicated drivers rather than those who below the current 0.05g/100ml limit. Incidentally, the same study showed that 60% of pedestrian fatalities tested positive for alcohol and their mean blood alcohol concentration was a staggering 0.21g/100ml.
The new study in the American Journal of Public Health said that over 15 years, as older cars without a so-called "alcohol ignition interlock" were scrapped, sobriety checks in new vehicles could prevent more than 59 000 crash deaths, more than 1.25-million non-fatal injuries and save the equivalent of R4-trillion in injury-related costs.
Lead author Dr Patrick Carter, an emergency physician at the University of Michigan, said: "Alcohol interlocks are used very effectively in all 50 states as a component of sentencing or as a condition for having a driving licence reinstated.
"This, however, only works for the drunk drivers caught by police and it doesn't catch the people who choose to drive without a licence to avoid having the interlock installed."
COULD BE PREVENTED
Most drunk drivers make about 80 trips under the influence before they were stopped for a DUI, Carter said. "If we decided that every new car should have an alcohol ignition interlock that's seamless to use for the driver and doesn't take any time or effort, we suddenly have a way to significantly reduce fatalities and injuries that doesn't rely solely on police."
Carter and colleagues used US records of traffic accidents and fatalities to determine how many involved drunk driving and then estimated how many of those se incidents could be prevented by fitting new cars with alcohol-interlock devices, which detect blood-alcohol levels and prevent drivers above a certain threshold from starting the car.
Then they estimated how many deaths and injuries could be prevented in the first year that all new cars sold had screening systems and assumed it would take 15 years for older models to be replaced with new vehicles.
Over those 15 years interlocks could eliminate the huge financial costs from fatalities and injuries related to drunk driving, the researchers estimate. Assuming the device costs $400 per vehicle (about R4900) and is 100% accurate, the interlock would pay for itself after three years by way of avoided injury costs.
ZERO SETTING FOR YOUNG DRIVERS
Dr Bud Zaouk, who is working to develop the technology known as the "driver alcohol detection system for safety", or DADSS, said however that the screening tool to do this was still being developed and might not be road-ready for another five to eight years.
It would prevent a car from moving if the driver has a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or greater - the legal limit in all 50 states - and could be set to zero for drivers under the legal drinking age.
Zaouk, DADSS programme manager, said: "Unlike the alcohol ignition interlocks which require you to blow into a device and are used to convict drunk drivers, DADSS is a driver assist system that would take a half-second to measure a driver's blood-alcohol content in the breath or through the fingertips, which is far more reliable."