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MADD Accused of Conflict in Highway Bill Talks

While House and Senate conferees put the final touches on a six-year highway funding bill, restaurants and liquor stores are accusing Mothers Against Drunk Driving of a financial conflict of interest for pushing to have breathalyzer ignition locks installed in the cars of repeat-offense drunken drivers.

But MADD is firing back that alcoholic beverage retailers have their own interests at heart.

“It’s fantastic that the people who sell alcohol to drunk drivers say we have a conflict of interest,” said MADD CEO Chuck Hurley. “Everything we have proposed [to Congress] is backed up by scientific data that is proven to work.”

MADD is lobbying for a Senate-passed provision in the highway bill that would shift state highway construction funds into accounts set aside for highway safety if states do not force repeat offenders to install ignition interlocks on their cars.

The American Beverage Institute, which represents large chain restaurants, and American Beverage Licensees, which represent liquor stores and small taverns, said MADD’s push for the drunken driving language in the highway bill may be linked more to the group’s pledge to “promote” the products of its corporate “Technology Partners in Safety” sponsors than to its mission to get drunken drivers off the roads.

But Hurley said that accepting $30,000 over three years from ignition interlock manufacturers is a drop in the bucket of MADD’s $53 million gross revenues for fiscal 2005.

Conferees on the highway bill are rushing this week to get a deal on the nearly $300 billion bill, which chiefly funds road building but also includes money and rules for driving safety programs. The drunken driving provisions are just one of myriad issues that conferees are discussing, but as of press time Tuesday, no deal was imminent.

Until last month, MADD’s Web site contained a link on the benefits of becoming a “Technology Partner in Safety,” which noted that “MADD will promote your company’s products and special equipment discounts to MADD’s 600 chapters and state organizations year round.”

Plus, MADD has teamed up with Smart Start Inc., which describes itself on a Web site as “the nation’s premier provider of ignition interlock services.” MADD promotes Smart Start’s sponsorship on its Web site, noting the company is a Gold Corporate Sponsor that has given a $10,000 annual donation to the group.

But Hurley said MADD does not promote specific products, only the technology behind the products.

“We promote interlocks because they’re proven to get drunk drivers off the road,” he said.

An aide to a Senate sponsor of the drunken driving provisions agreed that MADD did not appear to be pushing ignition interlocks for any other purpose than highway safety.

“MADD’s interest always has to be safety, and they see working with the interlock folks as a way to increase safety,” said the aide.

Rick Berman, ABL’s Washington counsel, said MADD is ignoring evidence that ignition interlocks actually make the roads less safe. But he also acknowledged that ABL and ABI are concerned that tougher drunken driving provisions could lead to “prohibition on the dining-out industry” that targets moderate, social drinkers, rather than MADD’s stated goal of going after hard-core drunken drivers.

“We feel it is a slippery slope here designed to get to the point where interlocks will be part of every car, and if you’ve had one drink, the car won’t start,” Berman said. “We don’t believe the public wants to go there. These devices are all about creating this police state.”

Still, Berman sent a flier to House and Senate conferees on Monday detailing what ABL sees as MADD’s conflict of interest, not the “slippery slope” argument.

The flier notes that at least one MADD National Advisory Board has endorsed a reduction in the amount of time drunken drivers would have their licenses suspended if they agreed to use the interlock technology, while simultaneously pushing for interlock laws.

“It’s an effort to put more offenders on the road much sooner,” complained ABI Executive Director John Doyle, who noted that the ignition interlock industry stands to make as much as $1.2 billion if all states adopt the laws requiring the devices. The devices require drivers to breath into a breathalyzer inside the car that can monitor blood alcohol concentration. If the person has been drinking, the interlock will prevent the car from being started.

Doyle and Berman pointed to a California Department of Motor Vehicles report released in February, which calls into question the benefits of interlock devices.

Berman’s flier quotes the California DMV as saying, “The findings of [ignition interlock device] installation for second offenders choosing to install an interlock device in order to shorten their period of license suspension were mixed. … [S]econd offenders installing an IID have a significantly higher risk of a subsequent crash than second offenders who remain suspended.”

However, the California DMV has taken issue with the beverage industry’s use of its report before.

“It’s true that we found court orders to install an ignition interlock device have no significant effect in preventing repeat DUIs among first-time DUI offenders. But what the ABI press release completely omitted was our finding that when second-time offenders install the device in order to be able to drive with a restricted license, they have a significantly lower risk of repeat DUI incidents — a 41 percent reduction,” the report’s author, David DeYoung, said in a March 2005 statement.

DeYoung also noted that the industry’s contention that second offenders are at a 130 percent higher risk of a car crash has nothing to do with the installation and use of interlocks.

“Obviously, if someone who has previously been forbidden to drive is allowed to return legally to the roadways with an ignition interlock and a restricted drivers license, their exposure to accidents increases, no matter how sober they are,” DeYoung said.

Hurley said the mixed findings of the California DMV study belie the broad support that insurance companies and other government officials have given the devices, based on numerous favorable studies.

“The vast preponderance of evidence on interlocks is very positive,” he said. “We support both [license] suspension and interlocks. Two-thirds of drivers with only a suspended license continue to drive.”

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