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The unintended risks of a drunken driving system

Over the past decade, states have become a powerful tool increasingly to stop drunk driving before it starts: small breathalyzers wired into the electronics of a vehicle, which Unless the person behind the wheel is sober enough to drive, prevent the engine from starting.

Such devices have been remarkably effective, called ignition interlocks. One study found that there were 15 percent fewer deaths from alcohol-related car accidents in the states that require penalties for all drunken-driving offenders.

But while interlocks stopped thousands of collisions, they triggered them as well.

In November 2017, when a speeding truck crashed into her Toyota Camry, Alexis Butler was pulling out of a driveway in Arlington, Tex. The driver, Blake Cowan, was arrested for drunken driving twice the previous year, but, according to police records, he was sober at the time of the crash.

Mr. Cowan had to prove his sobriety by hitting an interlocking device to start his vehicle — a gadget the size of a cell phone, attached to the steering column of the car. But he had to do extra breath tests to keep driving to show that he wasn’t drunk on the road.

Such reviews, known as rolling retests in the industry, take place at random. They allow the driver to raise a hand off the wheel, pick up the device, and for several seconds blast— hard — into their mouthpiece. The car goes into panic mode if the driver fails or fails to comply: its headlights illuminate, And the horn honks until the engine is shut off by the driver.

Mr. Cowan had just passed the test, but he lost his interlock on the concrete. Wanting to search for his next one in easy reach, he told a police detective — and hit the car of Ms. Butler. A week later, she died.

According to the latest report in an annual industry survey, about 350,000 people in the United States have interlocks from 133,000 a decade earlier. Thirty-four states — including New Jersey this month — allow people to install the devices with drunken-driving convictions. The number would certainly increase; other governments are proposing similar laws. Two senators from the United States are pushing for legislation requiring all new cars to include a variant of the technology by 2024.

But the ability of the devices to divert attention from vehicles has received little scrutiny, even as states clamp down on other types of distracted driving, such as texting behind the wheel or holding a phone on your ear.

A study of accident reports and litigation by The New York Times resulted in dozens of examples of accidents in which the devices had a role to play. A driver from Pennsylvania who tried to complete a test hit so hard that he blacked out and crashed into a tree, nearly cutting off his left hand. Another struck a telephone pole in rural New Hampshire. And a man trying a rolling retest on a busy highway in California crossed the dividing line and hit another vehicle, injuring a woman seriously and killing her friend.

A lucrative business that is rising

New Mexico became the first state for all convicted of driving drunk in 2005 to allow interlocks. This soon followed more than a dozen others, spurred on by Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s national lobbying campaign.

The organization says its highest legislative priority for each drunken-driving offender to mandate interlocks for all states. M.A.D.D. also called on automakers to incorporate such technology into all vehicles as an option.

“It’s pretty overwhelming to studies showing interlocks save lives,” J.T. said. Griffin, the senior representative of government affairs at M.A.D.D.

That’s not the only reason they’re selling quickly: States aren’t paying the bill. Drivers pay around $75 for installing the devices in their vehicles, as well as a monthly monitoring fee that usually runs from $60 to $100. Typically, the annual cost of having an appliance is $1,000 or more.

A lucrative industry has been developed. According to its chief executive, Smart Start, headquartered in Texas, reported its interlock sales last year at around $150 million — almost double its revenue from four years ago. Dräger, a German company that is one of the leading breathalyzer system manufacturers, is now making twice as much money from U.S. interlocks as it does from its current breath-test market. Many interlock manufacturers, including Smart Start, have been acquired by private equity firms looking to cash in and are chasing others.

As regulatory alerts were given regarding rolling checks, Interlock firms pushed back.

The national administration of road traffic safety, the federal government agency responsible for setting requirements for vehicle safety equipment, started revising its 14-year-old recommendations on how to interlock systems would operate in 2006. A 2010 document draft said the agency “does not wish” that users perform rolling retests and said they should be done while on the side of the road is stopped.

The interlock industry and others protested, arguing that rolling retests were safe and, in any case, asking drivers to pull over was impractical.

“All interlock vendors advise the customer/user to pull off the road in a ‘ safe ‘ place to take the replacement,” LifeSafer’s founder, a leading vendor, wrote in a letter to the N.H.T.S.A. that the “practical reality” of interlocks is that “99 percent” of replacements occur while the car travels.

Another company, National Interlock Systems, said, “While traffic accidents may have occurred while the test is being performed, we do not know of any.”

And Colorado state officials said in many cases, such as tunnels and “congested areas with narrow lanes and small shoulders,” rolling retests will be safer.

The regulator was backed up. It wrote in its final guidelines, released in 2013, that it was “anxious about distracted driving,” but would not explain how to carry out retests. The agency also said it was “a role for states and local jurisdictions that were more fitting.”

The agency said the apps would allow “ample time” to pull over for a check in a statement to The Times.

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