Wrong way put right: Technology can be the ignition key to curb DUIs

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If there's one popular belief that's been hard-won through bitter experience, it's that drinking and driving don't mix. But technology can ensure the fatal mix doesn't happen. Thanks to ignition interlock systems, vehicles won't start if the driver has been drinking.

In a logical move, the National Transportation Safety Board this week recommended that every state require ignition interlock devices in the vehicles of convicted drunken drivers, even first-time offenders. This conclusion follows an NTSB study on wrong-way driving crashes that occur on high-speed divided highways. Alcohol was identified as a major factor.

Seventeen states have mandated ignition interlock systems for first-time Driving Under the Influence offenders. In Pennsylvania, anyone convicted of a second or subsequent DUI must have an ignition interlock device installed on each vehicle they drive for one year. Drivers must blow into the device before starting a vehicle; it won't start if alcohol is detected. The devices cost about $1,000 to lease, but the savings in lives is immeasurable.

The NTSB study looked at wrong-way driving crashes in eight states, one of them Pennsylvania. Such crashes -- often head-on -- are more likely to result in fatal or serious injuries compared with other sorts of highway accidents. The study says that about 60 percent of wrong-way accidents involve alcohol and that 78 percent of the fatalities occur between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

In short, a confused driver, especially at night, may very well end up driving the wrong way on a highway en route to being a dead driver. And what better way to prevent alcohol from robbing drivers of their judgment than allowing technology to keep their engines from starting in the first place?

The NTSB's recommendation for those with a DUI record is the right way to mitigate the chance of wrong-way highway accidents, at least as long as the requirement applies only to those who have been convicted of driving under the influence.

The study found that 9 percent of wrong-way drivers had been convicted of driving under the influence within the three years prior to their accidents. That may tempt some to argue for ignition interlocks in all vehicles. But there's a fine line between rules that are overreaching and rules that are reasonable -- and it should be drawn between those drivers who have lost the public's trust and everybody else.

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