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According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, every year about 1,825 students aged 18 to 24 die from alcohol-related injuries, including motor vehicle crashes. However, a recent study at Penn Medicine shows a promising new solution that can decrease drunk driving deaths by 15 percent.

Researchers at Penn Medicine published a paper last month showing that state laws requiring drivers who have previously been convicted of drunk driving to pass a breathalyzer-type test before starting their cars saved an estimated 915 lives between 2004 and 2013. This was a 15 percent decrease in deaths compared to states without this type of laws.

The laws, called mandatory interlock laws, reduced deaths by 0.8 for every 100,000 people each year. The rate is comparable to the number of deaths reduced by airbag laws and a minimum drinking age of 21 — respectively 0.9 and 0.2 per 100,000.

The study was led by Elinore Kaufman, a master’s student in Health Policy and serves as the first national analysis of the impact of a universal mandatory interlock law. Currently, 18 states have implemented such laws and other states including Pennsylvania are considering them. The ignition interlock device would be an alternative to driving suspension, so prior offenders would still be able to drive sober — just not when drunk.

“From my point of view, having this law is all pro,” Kaufman said. “I think it takes some of the burden off people who have been convicted because they can still go to work or school or wherever they need to go legally. I think it also takes some of the burden off our law enforcement because it’s police officers' job to try to identify and stop drunk drivers and it’s a really hard job — you can’t be everywhere at once… and it makes us as a community safer.”

Kaufman said that although Penn undergrads on campus would not be as affected as students on more rural campuses because students here do not typically drive, she said that everyone would benefit from the additional safety on the streets.

Car crashes involving alcohol make up 30 percent of vehicular fatalities resulting in 11,000 deaths every year, according to the study. The Pennsylvania law would require first time DUI offenders who were caught with a blood alcohol content of 0.1 or higher to install the devices.

Kaufman was inspired to look into this research by her experiences as a surgery resident working in trauma surgery. As a healthcare provider with a passion for helping others, she was struck by the large number of injuries that could have easily been prevented. She recounted one of her experiences that stood out to her.

“I’ve had a patient that was driving drunk and he came in and his injuries were pretty minor but his passenger who was in the car with him was killed. That situation never needed to happen," Kaufman said. "His brother obviously lost his life and his life is going to be really damaged by that. It’s stories like that get you involved in this type of thing."

Kaufman said that instilling this law would be “low-hanging fruit” for states and that as alcohol sensing technology becomes better the devices will only get better over time. In the long term, expanding these devices to all cars could be a possible idea.

“In terms of where we go next… other people have suggested the idea that we have these devices in all cars, like how we have airbags or seat belts. I think that would be a bigger change, obviously, but it’s something that as a country we should really consider.” Kaufman said. “Nobody needs to be driving drunk.” 

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