The Blow ‘N’ Go Bill

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Drunk driving offenders are often given machines to put in their cars that won’t allow the engines to start unless the offender blows in a tube to prove that he or she has not been drinking. In certain parts of the U.S., these are affectionately called “Blow ‘N’ Go’s.” And nine senators submitted a bill on Tuesday that could be a key step in making some kind of proof-you’re-sober device into a standard feature on automobiles.

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall’s ROADS SAFE Act of 2011 (as in, Research of Alcohol Detection Systems for Stopping Alcohol-related Fatalities Everywhere Act of 2011) would establish a $60-million effort over five years that would “explore the feasibility and the potential benefits of, and the public policy challenges associated with, more widespread deployment of in-vehicle technology to prevent alcohol-impaired driving.”

This funding would be a joint venture of the federal government and an auto industry coalition to back a research program already in the works. And this isn’t the bill’s first time at this rodeo: It was introduced, along with a House companion bill, last session, but neither made it out of committee.

One public-policy challenge has already appeared. The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, is making the rounds to denounce the measure, as they have before. They fear that such machines will eventually become mandatory (politicians say they will just be more widely deployed) and will have thresholds below the legal limit. The bill explicitly states that such machines would be set at the legal limit, as determined by federal, state or local law — but the head of the program conceded in a 2009 interview that there would likely be a “safety margin.”

Restaurant owners are worried about their alcoholic beverage sales, and it’s difficult to make a compelling public argument that the government shouldn’t interfere with their right to get customers tipsy before they drive home. But their fear of machines becoming mandatory, should the program go forward, seems more reasonable. The program does, after all, make much more sense if it’s mandatory.

The people likely to voluntarily take on a machine would be the type who wouldn’t drive drunk in the first place. There are parents who might want one to keep their teenagers safe. And there is the contingency of people who take sober pains to keep themselves from making poor drunk decisions. But it’s hard to imagine the willing population of drivers has enough crossover with the truly dangerous one to justify the costs.

At any rate, mandatory Blow ‘N’ Go’s are still far off. The aim is currently to have a prototype — unlikely to actually be the blowing kind — that is “moderately priced, absolutely reliable and set at … the legal limit.” And if the bill continues to get stuck in committee, there’s no telling when that research period will even start.