In an editorial this month, The Baltimore Sun lauded the Hogan administration for its intention to change regulation to increase voluntary enrollment in state-supervised ignition interlock programs. While this is a step in the right direction, it is a small drop in the ocean of potential for change in this area.

Drunk driving causes approximately one in three fatal motor vehicle accidents in the United States. In Maryland since 2003 there have been over 1,700 deaths involving a drunk driver. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), New Mexico was the first state in 2006 to mandate alcohol interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers — with a subsequent 38 percent decline in drunk driving deaths. MADD has also highlighted through the WisDot study in Wisconsin the elephant in the room that has been ignored by the Hogan administration: Most drunk drivers causing death or serious harm had no prior convictions of driving under the influence. Surely in Maryland we can leap-frog our current approach by learning from domestic and international experiences and pave a more effective way to address this issue.


Adoption of alcohol ignition interlocks has been proven to save lives. Europe has led the way in the adoption of interlock technology. Sweden and Finland have implemented the technology in both government and non-government services, including commercial transport vehicles, taxis and child transport services — all with evidence-based success. Earlier this month, Australia's lead road safety authority, AustRoads, proposed a strategy to fit interlocks to all vehicles in Australia.

There is an analogue to the European approach that could bring about change in the U.S. By adopting alcohol interlocks in particular fleets of cars, Europeans have fostered consumer acceptance of the devices, which allow drivers to operate a vehicle only if their breath is alcohol free. This has paved the way for a future where passive alcohol sensing technology exists in all new cars — a future free of drunk driving.

How could this work in America? Currently, customers book a rental car with standard background checks but with no screening for intoxication. Shouldn't it be the responsibility of rental car companies to ensure that drivers are under the legal blood alcohol concentration limit before renting their vehicles? It is arguably negligent for these companies to ignore this potential loophole. The solution? Have rental car companies install alcohol interlocks in all vehicle fleets, leaving no room for negligence. This could serve as a platform for consumer acceptance to be scaled to the entire U.S. market.

Although the alcohol ignition interlock technology is not yet perfect, neither were the seat belt or the airbag initially. Yet these safety features are now accepted as standard across the automobile industry. Car companies compete on other "safety" features, including reverse cameras, automatic stop mechanisms and proximity sensors for hazardous objects. But they have yet to compete on passive alcohol sensing technology — technology like a Breathalyzer in a car that would not be intrusive to the driver.

The automakers are taking steps in the right direction, developing prototype models, but the process is long and needs to be propelled by consumer demand and social acceptance. The question is: How can we catalyze this process so that alcohol sensing technology becomes standard in all new car models sold on the market?

Adopting this evolving but lifesaving technology in rental car fleets would protect us all, and help us move toward a "new normal" of acceptance and even expectation that cars would contain this safety feature.

As a society, we must exercise our responsibility to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries due to drunk driving. We must learn from how air bags became standard safety equipment and take the necessary strides to adopt technology that would prevent drunk driving in the same way. What if you or a loved one was the innocent bystander whose life was forever changed because of a drunk driver? We cannot count on our state legislators to act optimally. Rental companies could lead the way toward safer roads for everyone.

Dr. Mahendra Naidoo is a visiting Fulbright Scholar; his email is