Updated: Sep 15, 2020
For anyone over 21, a fun night out always comes with the dangerous prospect of getting behind the wheel. At best, the shame of being too drunk to drive. At worst, unthinkable consequences and a bulky breathalyzer that prevents you from starting your car unless you prove that you’re sober.
Ramez Attia and Matthew Brown, who created SafeStart, a device to prevent drunk driving before it happens, think we’re doing it all wrong. “We're trying to get that mentality of, 'You're bad if you're drunk and you can't drive.’ We're trying to get that mentality out of people's heads,” said Attia, a rising senior in psychology and economics at Lewis and Clark.
Designed specifically for push-to-start cars, SafeStart is a keychain attachment that drivers can use to test their blood-alcohol level, like a breathalyzer. In Oregon, the legal limit for drivers of age is .08, and if drivers don’t pass, SafeStart blocks the RFID signal that starts the ignition.
Attia knows all too well how difficult it can be to make a responsible choice, but he had resources that others may not.
“It got very serious one day when I was invited to dinner from my boss,” he said. What was supposed to be just dinner turned into drinks and an appetizer, and Attia admits that, for a variety of reasons, he had too much to drink. “I didn't plan for that, so I drove to the place,” Attia said. “After that dinner-slash-appetizer cocktail hour was over, I felt like I shouldn't be driving.” After a few attempts, Attia finally reached his friend and SafeStart co-founder, Matthew Brown, and Brown caught a rideshare to drive Attia home.
“A lot of people in that situation aren't going to make that conscious decision. I mean, if everybody did that, the rates that we see now would be drastically low. Very low. Very rare,” said Brown, referring to rates of drunk driving. Brown is a rising senior in international affairs and entrepreneurship at Lewis and Clark.
To speak nothing of the potential loss within the community, penalties for driving under the influence vary from state to state. In Oregon, a DUII is a Class A misdemeanor. Offenders typically lose their license for a minimum of 90 days. Convicted drivers serve a jail sentence of up to one year or provide as many as 250 hours of community service. For most offenses, there is a minimum fine of $1,000. Drivers must attend a substance abuse treatment program.
And for one year, they must use an ignition interlock device, a breathalyzer that prevents the car from starting until the driver proves that they are sober. Like a cable modem, an IID is both an accessory and a service. They typically require installation and removal fees, plus monthly fees for monitoring, maintenance, and leasing. All told, a year of IID use can cost a minimum of $700.
They’re also relatively easy to trick. The device can detect alcohol in a driver’s breath, but they can’t verify the driver is breathing into it. “When you mandate someone to do something, they will find ways because nobody likes to be told what to do,” Attia said. “They will find ways to trick the system, you know?” Attia said that some drivers recruit their kids to blow into the IID to turn on the car. According to Attia, this is caused by a perception problem about punishment.
Still, in spite of their drawbacks, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a national nonprofit and advocacy group, suggests that ignition interlock devices are the best line of defense we currently have against drunk driving.
Independent research indicates that mandated IIDs correlated with a 7% decrease in the rate of drunk driving fatal crashes between 1982 and 2013. The devices are much more effective in reducing repeat offenses than a license suspension. In some states, IIDs are optional; MADD advocates for mandatory IIDs regardless of the offense.
But perhaps most notably for SafeStart, the potential for IIDs to prevent drunk driving is most significant when more people actually use them the way they’re designed.
For Attia and Brown, the opportunity to do the most good occurs before a driver makes a decision that changes lives. SafeStart hopes to serve drivers who haven’t been apprehended for driving under the influence—specifically teenage drivers—and that means getting SafeStart in their hands before they start the car.
For Attia and Brown, that implies shame, not fear.
“We understand that not everyone has that friend to rely on,” Attia said, referring to Brown. “We understand how difficult this situation can be where you consciously make that decision to call someone and be like, ‘Hey, I messed up, I drank too much.’ It's embarrassing.”
SafeStart is an attempt to destigmatize decisions that surround the decision to drink. Lacking a safe space to ask for help, drivers that favor convenience over safety may risk the drive home. “People in that situation think like, ‘Oh, I only have to get myself home,’ as if there's no other drivers on the street,” Brown said.
In other words, drunk drivers are just too ashamed of being drunk to avoid an unadvisable risk. Nothing currently available to address drunk driving acknowledges that.
“The products right now are so stigmatized, are so bulky. They are targeted to make you feel bad about what you did,” Attia said. “The competitors out there right now, they don't care about price. They don't care about looks. They don't care because it's a state mandate. They think, ‘Oh, they're going to sell.’ They know that their prices don't matter. They take that opportunity and they milk it for all it's worth. You pay for the device. You pay monthly fees. You pay for installation. You pay for everything. And on top of that, it's big. People look at you. It's an easy indicator that you messed up.”
SafeStart approaches the problem of drunk driving as a social service, not a punitive measure that prevents repeat offenses. “First and foremost, it serves as your guardian angel,” Attia said. “You're above the limit. Here are your options.”
The SafeStart device will block the car’s ignition, but Attia and Brown envision a suite of services to help people get out of potentially dangerous situations. “You might be downtown in a dangerous area,” Brown said. “We don't want you sitting in your car. Let's call you an Uber. SafeStart is going to be able to do all of those things for you to help you get out of that situation and as safely as you can so you’re not having to make that decision.”
For those who make good choices, SafeStart may even reward drivers with coins that they can donate to a charity of their choice. After all, when the fun is over, the stakes are too high to leave to chance. “We're not only trying to protect you,” Brown said. “We're trying to protect the dad taking his son to a baseball game or taking his family home.”