Who Knew? GM Invented the DUI Ignition Interlock in 1970.

Your Hump-day Recess: A Swing and a Miss at DUI Prevention

Everyone in 1970 was aware that drunk driving was a serious problem, but no one knew what to do about it. That year, the NIH tells us, alcohol took about 31,000 lives on the nation’s roads. Booze figured in more than 60% of road deaths, and two-thirds traffic deaths among 16- to 20-year-olds.

Meanwhile, car safety was improving. Just a few years after losing the mandatory seat belt battle, the Big Four awoke to the idea that there was value in being seen as pro-safety.  In 1970 General Motors developed (but never marketed, to our knowledge) a kind of prototype of today’s ignition interlock. The device required a driver to reproduce a series of numbers that flashed on a screen by punching corresponding buttons. If they messed up (say, because they’d had nine Harvey Wallbangers), the car wouldn’t start (click photo to enlarge).

GM's version of an ignition interlock
(click to enlarge)

Why didn’t GM’s device take off?

If this device could really keep drunk drivers off the road, why does nothing remain of it, apart from a press photo? Most likely the federal government wasn’t stoked about GM’s discovery, and car companies generally didn’t push safety devices unless compelled to. It was legislation that made seat belts, head restraints, crashworthiness standards, and center brake lights universal.

Mostly, though, GM’s device failed because the idea was bad. The designers didn’t really understand how drunk drivers operate. Certainly it takes concentration to repeat the number sequence, but that isn’t enough to prevent a determined drunk to get on the road, for two reasons:

  • Drunks, particularly experienced drunks, are resourceful. Many people over the .08 blood alcohol limit can force themselves to concentrate for the few seconds it takes to complete the test. True, someone totally smashed – say, .20 BAC or more – would fail, but that still leaves a lot of dangerously impaired drivers who could pass the test. And though they might get it together long enough to punch out the five numbers, they couldn’t stay alert long enough to drive safely.
  • A driver could start the car while sober and then begin drinking afterwards. Or a sober passenger could take the test in place of the driver (notice that in the photo the demonstrator is in the passenger seat). Back in 1970, when drunk driving didn’t have anywhere near the stigma that it does today, getting a friend to do “curb service” would be easy. Does that sound stupid? Remember, these people wore plaid pants and platform shoes.

What worked: the ignition interlock

A better technology made GM’s dream come true a few years later. In the 1980s California started a pilot program for devices which used breath alcohol ignition interlock (BAIID) technology. The new devices measured actual intoxication, rather than physical coordination, which made more sense and worked more efficiently.

Apart from keeping a drunk from starting the car, ignition interlocks also keep a sober driver from getting drunk after starting the car, because of something called a rolling re-test. The driver must breathe into the device periodically while driving, to ensure that he or she is still sober. Interlocks these days can be equipped with cameras as well, to ensure that the one taking the test is the driver. Images and data are downloaded and reviewed by monitoring authorities to ensure that the offender is complying with the interlock regulations. You could never require someone to re-punch numbers while driving: that’s the Achilles’ heel of the GM device.

Upshot – Will Interlocks Become Standard on All Cars?

Alcohol related crash deaths are down dramatically from when this photo was taken: from 31,000 to about 10,000 victims. Alcohol has also gone from causing two-thirds to one-third of road fatalities each year. While that’s progress, it’s still a terrible waste of life. All over the world governments and road safety advocates are looking for ways to bring that number down to zero.

Often one hears that ignition interlocks should be mandatory on all vehicles. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) supports the idea. But such a development is far in the future.

What is clear is that ignition interlocks should be used for drunk driving offenders, including first offenders. A recently report by MADD and a study by the University of Pennsylvania were the latest evidence that the devices reduce DUI recidivism and alcohol-related road deaths.

General Motors had other car safety ideas in the 1970s, including airbags, which took off. But back then the time wasn’t right for a technological solution to drunk driving. Kudos to GM for trying, though. There are worse things than being ahead of your time. Such as not adopting a life-saving technology when it actually works.

Your Hump Day Recess: Every Wednesday LifeSafer brings you something a little different, related to the worlds of road safety, to ease your progress over Hump Day and through the week.
Previous Hump Days: a German Ignition Interlock spoof from 1960, our Top 10 Worst Crash Tests, a different kind of Anti-DUI message, Budweiser’s dogged anti-DUI campaign, How Not to Dodge a Parking Ticket, the world’s worst traffic jams, a dramatic buzzed driving PSA , an offbeat ad from New ZealandVince and Larry, our favorite crash test dummies, some excellent Soviet anti-drunk-driving posters, a lesson on how buzzed driving can ruin your love life, South Australia to Drunk Drivers: Grow Up!, a woman calls 911 to report herself for DUI, Felix the Cat and Drunk Driving,  DUIs who crash vintage cars – (ouch!), Woman Unwittingly Creates Self-Driving Car, A Brilliant PSA from Australia, a Road Safety Message in a Vodka Bottle, a PSA about binge drinking that is decidedly “meh,” Drunk Driver Crashes $4 Million Car, Drunk Driving in 1910, a Superb New Think! PSA from the UK,Drunk Driving in 1955: New Breath Test Technology Will Save the Day!, the Best Animated Gifs About Drunk Driving, Angle Parking: A Surreal DUI Stop Photo, a Hertz Advertisement that Could Have Used Another Set of Eyes, a Laugh Out Loud Anti-Drunk Driving Ad, and How to Beat a Breathalyzer with Peanut Butter … Not!