There are a lot of unsafe things to do while driving, but driving while intoxicated is about as unsafe as it gets. Safety campaigns that increase driver awareness can help reduce the number of people who choose to drive drunk, as can making alternative forms of transportation like trains and taxis more accessible. Unfortunately, once someone decides to drive drunk, stopping them can be difficult.
If they happen to drive past a police officer, they might get pulled over, but if they don’t, there’s nothing to stop them from drifting into oncoming traffic, driving off the road, or hitting pedestrians. The technology exists to put ignition locks and breathalyzers into cars, but the implementation is far from elegant, and it will likely never see widespread use.
But what if cars could seamlessly read how much alcohol was in a driver’s blood and could keep intoxicated drivers from starting their cars?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently showcased two new technologies that promise to do just that. Combined or working alone, the technologies are part of what is being called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety.
Autoliv Development, out of Sweden, is developing a system that works a lot like a much more advanced breathalyzer. But instead of having the driver blow into a tube, a sensor on the steering wheel captures air from the driver’s regular breathing. It then uses infrared light to analyze how much alcohol is present. Because carbon dioxide and alcohol molecules absorb different frequencies of infrared light, the system can quickly calculate the driver’s blood alcohol content.
There’s also a touch-based system being co-developed by TruTouch, a company with the actual alcohol sensing technology, and Takata, the auto parts supplier now infamous for its airbags that occasionally explode and shoot deadly shrapnel at people. Instead of analyzing a driver’s breath, the touch-based system uses infrared light to calculate BAC through the skin on the driver’s fingertip. It could be installed on a car’s start button or its steering wheel and can take multiple readings in under one second.
But both technologies are still several years away from being production-ready, and it’s unlikely that the federal government would mandate their inclusion for several years.
“There is still a great deal of work to do, but support from Congress and industry has helped us achieve key research and development milestones,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “DADSS has enormous potential to prevent drunk driving in specific populations such as teen drivers and commercial fleets, and making it an option available to vehicle owners would provide a powerful new tool in the battle against drunk driving deaths.”
The technology itself sounds like a great idea, but the actual implementation may end up being much more difficult. The American Beverage Institute agrees, recently posting an objection that highlights a number of concerns.
The ABI raised concerns about how the potential for lawsuits could affect the level of alcohol the systems would allow before locking the driver out. Could responsible drinkers who have a negligible amount of alcohol in their systems be kept from driving despite having a BAC well under the legal limit? It’s possible.
Because alcohol takes time to be absorbed into the body, someone who took several shots before deciding to drive could have a BAC within the legal limit and be able to start the car. Once they started driving though, their BAC could soon rise to illegal levels.
If something like that happened, the company that made the device could open itself up to a lawsuit. But if the maximum BAC was set low enough to prevent that from happening, someone who’d only had a drink or two might find themselves well under the legal limit but unable to drive their car anywhere.
Perhaps more importantly, though, there are questions of how many false positives and false negatives will occur every day.
“Even if these devices meet Six Sigma standards – i.e., they meet the necessary requirements for widespread installation by working properly 99.999966 percent of the time – there will still be 4,000 misreadings per day. That’s thousands of people stranded on a daily basis, unable to start their cars – or worse, drunken drivers who are able to get behind the wheel,” said the ABI’s post.
Whether this technology will ever make it through the multitude of legal and logistical hurdles is still unknown, but it’s still a step in the right direction. Then again, it would really only serve as a stop-gap between now and a time when fully autonomous cars completely eliminate the problem of drunk driving all together. Until then, though, pursuing ways to keep drunk drivers off the roads is still an important part of road safety.