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Interlocks needed for first-time drunk drivers, NTSB says

Ignition interlocks that keep intoxicated people from starting a car should be mandatory for first-time drunken-driving offenders, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said.

The safety board, which investigates transportation accidents, made the recommendation for the first time as part of an examination of wrong-way highway collisions, which kill an average of 360 people annually in the U.S. About 60 percent of crashes involving a driver going the wrong way down a road involve alcohol, according to the board, which can’t develop regulations on its own.

“Wrong-way accidents are among the most deadly types of motor accidents,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said today at a hearing on wrong-way driving in Washington. “They usually occur at high-speed and are primarily head-on collisions.”

A highway bill passed this year offers U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration grants to states that have or pass laws requiring ignition interlocks for first-time DUI offenders. Seventeen states now have laws requiring the interlocks.

The safety board previously recommended ignition interlocks only for convicted drunk drivers with high blood-alcohol levels.

GPS alerts

First-offender interlock requirements have been opposed by the American Beverage Institute, a Washington-based group that represents beverage suppliers and restaurant chains. Members operate 8,000 restaurants, the group says without identifying them.

The group, run by public relations executive Rick Berman, has said increasing interlock laws could reduce alcoholic beverage sales at restaurants.

The safety board, which investigates fatal plane crashes in the U.S. and assists other countries with similar probes, has spent more time in the past year on highway safety as U.S. aviation has become safer. There have been no passenger deaths on a U.S. commercial flight aboard planes with 100 or more seats since 2001, the longest stretch since the jet age began.

In addition to proposing the interlock requirement, the NTSB today recommended that auto navigation-system suppliers develop “consistent and intuitive” alerts to let drivers know if they enter a highway using an exit ramp. Hersman said that’s the most common way drivers end up going the wrong way on a highway.

Traffic deaths

The board described as “promising” a research project funded by automakers to passively detect whether a driver is drunk. Such a system may measure a driver’s blood-alcohol content through fingertip sensors on the steering wheel or through ambient breath measurements that don’t require a person to blow into a tube, as with an interlock.

NHTSA said yesterday that traffic deaths in 2011 fell to 32,367, the lowest number since 1949.

The NTSB also recommended states develop safety programs for older drivers, saying people over age 70 account for 15 percent of wrong-way collisions even though they’re less likely to be drunk.

The safety board last month recommended that states collect information on where drunk drivers had their last drink, as well as improving data collection and reporting of blood-alcohol concentration and agreeing on a common standard for drug testing after accidents.

About one-third of U.S. traffic deaths are related to alcohol, according to NHTSA data.

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