The independent news organization of Duke University

A breath for beer

I like beer. But I don’t want to die.

If you’re with me on this, I’ve got a proposal for you: Teenagers should install ignition interlock devices—which measure a driver’s blood alcohol level—in their vehicles in exchange for the right to drink.

Under this system, state governments would issue a new class of opt-in driver’s licenses for 18 to 21-year-olds. With such a license, a teenage driver would be legally obligated to install an ignition interlock device in his or her car and drive only vehicles with such systems installed. And in exchange, the driver would be entitled to possess and drink alcohol under the age of 21.

Let’s start with some background. Many of those who support a lower drinking age focus on the argument that teenage alcohol abuse would be no worse or even less prolific if the age of consumption was lowered to 18.

This is mostly a waste of time. The leading opponents of lowering the drinking age are not primarily concerned with potential health effects on teenagers, but rather the harm drunk teenagers cause to others (otherwise, they’d be equally focused on raising the age of purchase for tobacco to 21).

Indeed, the main advocates of the higher drinking age are a group called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). This group rightfully points out that teenagers, once drunk, are astonishingly likely to get behind the wheel and kill someone. MADD was a leading proponent of the 1984 congressional bill that mandates 21 as the minimum age for purchasing and publicly possessing alcohol.

Unfortunately, this law has proven ineffective. Enforcement is pitiful: According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 42 percent of high school students reported drinking alcohol in the past 30 days. Ten percent drove after drinking alcohol, and 28 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking. And various localized studies, including one by Arizona State University, have shown that raising the legal drinking age has had no effect on teenager consumption.

Not to mention that the small group of teenagers who choose to obey the law are also the ones least likely to drive drunk in the first place.

Clearly, teenagers drive drunk regardless of the drinking age. Fortunately, a new technology has emerged called ignition interlock. Mandatory in some states for drivers with prior DWI (driving while intoxicated) convictions, these devices require drivers to breath into a cell phone-like device to demonstrate sobriety. If the driver is drunk, the car doesn’t start.

Ignition interlocks aren’t just tools—they are miracle workers.

Studies have shown that while installed, re-arrest rates for drunk driving decreased by 67 percent—and that’s for people who already have a propensity to drive drunk. One can only imagine what they would do in the cars of every teenager.

So you can’t blame me for having assumed MADD would be unbridled proponents of these devices, if not so much the idea of lowering the drinking age.

Yet astonishingly, when I gave them a call, they objected almost as much to the idea of mandatory interlocks for non-DWI convicts as they did to lowering the drinking age.

Frank Harris, MADD state legislative affairs manager, told me the devices are “intrusive” for anyone who has not already been convicted of driving drunk, including teenagers. So MADD only advocates their installation in the vehicles of DWI convicts.

That’s a little like only requiring background checks on people who have already shot someone when issuing gun permits.

The government already tells me that I have to wear a helmet on a bicycle, wear a seat belt and drive a vehicle with airbags in order to save my own life. An extra breath before starting my car to save someone else’s—along with my own—hardly seems like a giant step.

MADD’s argument—that asking people to prove sobriety is intrusive—is fatuous, especially given their insistence that banning teenage drinking altogether is not. Even if opponents adopt the tenuous constitutional argument that mandatory installation of such devices are an “unreasonable search,” that wouldn’t apply to an opt-in agreement to install them.

And this kind of pilot program is the perfect way to popularize this fledgling technology.

Widespread adoption now among a key population would encourage further research into cheaper and more foolproof devices, which could one day lead to universal use.

Indeed, newer devices that are under development measure sobriety through eyeball sensors or sensors in the gearshift, which make them more accurate and even less intrusive (they also prevent drunks from having sober friends blow into their interlocks for them).

Of course, this is a two-way street. Regardless of what the drinking age is, the blase attitude toward drinking and driving many teenagers have is idiotic. But trust breeds responsibility, and the worst way to get young adults to behave like adults is to treat us like children.

And it may sound ridiculous now, but young people should be MADD’s largest constituency: We’re disproportionately likely to die in drunk driving accidents. Supporting this pilot program will win MADD a host of new followers in pursuit of what should be a universal goal: stopping drunk driving. More importantly, it will save lives.

So let’s make a deal.

Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior.

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