Proposed Bill Would Fund In-Car Alcohol Detection Program
A proposed federal transportation bill includes a measure to fund the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) alcohol detector program with $24 million over two years, reports Joseph B. White in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal blog, Eyes on the Road.
The funding would make it possible for the NHTSA to include prototypes of two types of alcohol detectors in a fleet of 100 or more cars by 2013. One type of detector would use touch technology to take a reading from a driver’s skin, such as a fingertip, to activate the car’s start button. The other would measure alcohol in the driver’s breath.
Researchers are working with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the NHTSA to develop the technology that could be built into a car’s dashboard or controls and refuse to start the car if a driver has had more alcoholic beverages to drink than the legal limit. “The effort, which began in 2008, is officially known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, or DADSS for short,” White reports.
The arguments for pursuing cars that can detect drunk drivers revolve around the stubborn persistence of alcohol as a factor in fatal car crashes. In 1982, about 49% of drivers killed in car wrecks had blood-alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher. By 1994, that percentage had dropped to about 33%, where it has since plateaued, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found in a study of federal data from 1982 to 2010.
“We’ve made more progress, faster, than we expected,” says Rob Strassburger, vice president for vehicle safety at the alliance. In his article, “After the Party, a Car That Takes Away Your Keys,” White writes:
It sounds futuristic and it will likely be years — eight to 10 by Mr. Strassburger’s estimate — before cars and trucks with built-in blood-alcohol detectors are for sale. The next phase, additional years off, is a commercially produced vehicle with the technology to drive a tipsy owner home autonomously. […]
Technology to disable a car if the driver is intoxicated already exists, but it is currently used primarily as a punitive measure for people caught with blood-alcohol levels over the legal limit.
As Chris Davies reports for Slash Gear, the NHTSA is not pushing for mandatory inclusion of the technology in future cars, but instead is leaving it up to car makers. “One suggestion is that it will be car rental firms and fleet management that opt-in first, adding a discrete sensor to the dashboard that drivers must touch or blow into in order to meet all the criteria for rental,” he writes.
Davies notes there are problems with getting everyone on board with such technology:
Still, given some are still reluctant to even use safety belts, the idea of a car telling them that they’re not in a fit condition to drive is unlikely to go down well. We may need to wait until cars can not only stop us from leaving the parking lot, but drive us home themselves — using technology such as Google’s driverless cars — before such systems gain broader acceptance
One such group opposing the technology represents Washington, D.C., restaurants, Davies writes. The group is concerned that caution over liability over drunk-driving car accidents could cause manufacturers to set lower limits on the locks than is legally mandated.
“Since alcohol can take some time to enter the bloodstream, they argue, car companies or those behind the scanning systems themselves may be tempted to configure the blood alcohol limit below 0.08-percent, the current legal threshold in every US state,” Davies writes. That could have the effect of leaving those drivers who do stick to recommended limits — such as a single glass of wine with dinner — being nailed by their in-car system even though they are actually legally “safe” to drive.
Image by LifeSafer, used under Fair Use: Reporting.