A Simple Solution?

It seems like a very simple solution to a horrendous problem. Drunk drivers kill thousands of people each year, so why not put breath analysis technology inside each vehicle instead of in the hands of law enforcement? Each time you get in your car, you breathe into the device, and if your breath fingers you for overindulging in alcohol, your car won't start. Otherwise, you can turn the key and be on your way.

New York Assemblyman Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn) is one of the latest in a string of politicians and safety advocates who have proposed legislation to require this scenario. And who could object? If you're not drunk, you car starts just as it should and, except for the split second you spend exhaling into the apparatus, your life remains the same. If you are drunk, well, you could feel inconvenienced, but the system might well save your life as well as the lives of others.

But not everyone is sanguine about proposals like that of Ortiz. Civil libertarians object to the "guilty until you prove yourself innocent" nature of the plan, because applied literally it would require every driver in to prove his or her sobriety by passing an alcohol breath test every time they start their car anyplace, anytime and regardless of whether they drink responsibly -- or at all.

Manufacturers, car dealers and many consumers look askance at the proposal for simple dollars-and-cents reasons. The cost to install Breathalyzer-type devices has been estimated to be at least $1,000 per automobile, which, to many, seems an enormous fee to be levied on millions of citizens who drive responsibly, just because a few do not. Furthermore, some are adamant in their opposition.

"This asinine bill would place Big Brother in the car of every driver in the state of New York," John Doyle, executive director of The American Beverage Institute, said. "Assemblyman Ortiz's anti-alcohol agenda is going to cost millions of dollars to implement, and he is going to stick New York drivers with the bill. Meanwhile, the true core of the drunk-driving problem today will go largely ignored."

The American Beverage Institute is an association of restaurants whose credo asserts that they are "committed to the responsible serving of adult beverages." Certainly, they feel threatened by an ignition interlock system that could leave many patrons stranded in parking lots after just a social drink or two, because, as with the old seatbelt interlock, mechanical imperfections in the system seem inevitable. In fact, non-drinkers could well encounter non-start situations brought on by system failure, too.

The ABI and a scattering of safety experts insist that the real drunk-driving problem doesn't emanate from the social drinker. Instead, they point to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that shows the overwhelming majority of drunk-driving fatalities today are caused by a very small population of alcohol abusers who are very often repeat offenders. Address repeat offenders by keeping them off the streets and you will go a long way toward solving the problem, they say.

"Assemblyman Ortiz's galling legislation presumes that every New York mom driving her kids to soccer practice, every businessman driving to work, or every teenager driving to school may be guilty of drunk driving," Doyle said. "Ortiz will force them to not only prove their innocence but pay for the test -- clearly a costly violation of civil liberties that should be an outrage to New Yorkers."

Of course, the magnitude of the drunk-driving problem in the United States and the carnage it causes are another cause for outrage from us all. It is understandable that ignition interlock proposals would be put forward as a potential solution to this deadly situation, but one has to weigh whether the suggested cure is worth the disruptions it could cause.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini is known to sample a little vino now and then, but never before driving.