Ken Garcia: Will anti-drunken-driving technology fly in The City?

The holidays are upon us — shopping frenzies, festive parties, good food, liquid cheer and sobriety checkpoints.

Talk about buzz kill.

But while the vast majority of seasonal revelers are careful not to overindulge with spirits during this time of year, there is always someone around to remind us how drinking and driving don’t mix — even in slurry San Francisco, where the town leaders essentially legalized pot growing and distribution for adults last week.

The cautionary flag was raised recently by several national highway safety associations and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which are trying to use modern technology in their fight to reduce vehicle fatalities — a plan still in its relative infancy but gaining traction.

Now officials from MADD have always be a little overly strident — most single-issue advocacy groups are — and the organization’s name has always struck me as a tad curious since I’ve never met anyone who was actually for drunken driving. But their latest approach to take the car keys from overimbibers does make some sense — even if the technology is still flawed.

MADD is campaigning for states to pass laws that would require people convicted of drunken driving to install a device that shuts down a car if alcohol is detected on the driver. The devices, called ignition interlocks, are already in use in several states and last year New Mexico became the first state to make them mandatory for anyone found guilty of driving under the influence.

Officials in New Mexico have reported an 11 percent drop in alcohol-related driving deaths since it approved the law — a fair amount for a state that has fewer than 2 million people. And according to MADD and other highway safety advocacy groups, it’s significant in light of the fact that the main tactic to reduce drunken driving, the threat of arrest and incarceration, has not worked to reduce the fatality toll.

“It’s the only state where it’s fully implemented and it’s shown results,” said Paula Birdsong, executive director of MADD California. “For most other states it’s used at the discretion of the courts. But some people are not aware of this technology and we’re trying to change that.”

Officials acknowledge that interlocks are hardly foolproof — if a sober person blew into the Breathalyzer tube that controls them, another person well over the legal limit could still drive the car. But groups as disparate as the National Transportation Safety Board and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said advances in the interlock technology are on the horizon and could provide a promising antidote to the nation’salcohol-related auto fatality rate — about 13,000 deaths a year.

Saab, the Swedish automaker that is owned by General Motors, is testing a device in Europe that prevents a car from starting if the Breathalyzer detects too much alcohol. Other companies are looking at other ways to sense the presence of alcohol, including having a sensor on the steering wheel. The New York Times recently reported that taxi companies and auto fleet owners are also target markets for the emerging technology.

Of course, it’s still too early to say how successful any national campaign to change driving behavior and personal habits will be, especially since there’s bound to be resistance in some states — such as California — where civil libertarians object to any added, government-backed presence. One could certainly imagine the outcry in San Francisco, where placing surveillance cameras in high-crime neighborhoods creates a high-level stir — even when the residents of the communities plead for them.

It’s probably worth noting that in our anything-goes city, there is not even a MADD chapter — to find the nearest one I had to call Birdsong in Alameda County.

But as with most new technology, much of its success will likely be related to cost. Birdsong said the interlock devices on the market range from $400 to $1,000. That may explain why most people — excluding those not under court order — aren’t rushing to buy them.

Yet officials say the current penalty of fines and revoking licenses doesn’t work because people are determined to drive. It’s been estimated that there are as many as 1 million people driving with suspended licenses in California .

It will probably take years to build enough momentum to integrate interlocks in more cars, but change is inevitable. After all, there was once a time when you could go shopping in October and not hear Christmas music. Really.

Ken Garcia’s columnappears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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