In future, cars might decide if driver is drunk

WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) — An alcohol-detection prototype that uses automatic sensors to instantly gauge a driver’s fitness to be on the road has the potential to save thousands of lives, but could be as long as a decade away from everyday use in cars, federal officials and researchers said Friday.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited QinetiQ North America, a Waltham, Mass.-based research and development facility, for the first public demonstration of systems that could measure whether a motorist has a blood alcohol content at or above the legal limit of .08 and — if so — prevent the vehicle from starting.

The technology is being designed as unobtrusive, unlike current alcohol ignition interlock systems often mandated by judges for convicted drunken drivers. Those require operators to blow into a breath-testing device before the car can operate.

The Driver Alcohol Detection Systems for Safety, as the new approach is called, would use sensors that would measure blood alcohol content in one of two possible ways: either by analyzing a driver’s breath or through the skin, using sophisticated touch-based sensors placed strategically on steering wheels and door locks, for example.

Both methods eliminate the need for drivers to take any extra steps, and those who are sober would not be delayed in getting on the road, researchers said.

The technology is “another arrow in our automotive safety quiver,” said LaHood, who emphasized the system was envisioned as optional equipment in future cars and voluntary for auto manufacturers.

David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also attended the demonstration and estimated the technology could prevent as many as 9,000 fatal alcohol-related crashes a year in the U.S., though he also acknowledged that it was still in its early testing stages and might not be commercially available for 8-10 years.

The systems would not be employed unless they are “seamless, unobtrusive and unfailingly accurate,” Strickland said.

The initial $10 million research program is funded jointly by NHTSA and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, an industry group representing many of the world’s car makers.

Critics, such as Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, doubt if the technology could ever be perfected to the point that it would be fully reliable and not stop some completely sober people from driving.

“Even if the technology is 99.9 percent reliable, that’s still tens of thousands of cars that won’t start every day,” said Longwell. Her group also questions whether an .08 limit would actually be high enough to stop all drunken drivers, since blood alcohol content can rise in people during a trip depending on factors such as how recently they drank and how much they ate.

“It’s going to eliminate the ability of people to have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer at a ball game and then drive home, something that is perfectly safe and currently legal in all 50 states,” she said.

LaHood disputed that the technology would interfere with moderate social drinking, and said the threshold in cars would never be set below the legal limit.

In Friday’s demonstration, a woman in her 20s weighing about 120 pounds drank two, 1½ ounce glasses of vodka and orange juice about 30 minutes apart, eating some cheese and crackers in between to simulate a typical social setting, said Bud Zaouk, director of transportation safety and security for QinetiQ.

Using both the touch-based and breath-based prototypes, the woman registered a .06 blood alcohol content, Zaouk said, so she would be able to start the car.

Laura Dean Mooney, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the technology could “turn cars into the cure.”

While she did not foresee the alcohol detection system ever being mandated by the government, Mooney, whose husband died in an accident caused by a drunken driver 19 years ago, said she could envision it someday becoming as ubiquitous as air bags or anti-lock brakes in today’s cars, particularly if insurance companies provide incentives for drivers to use those systems by discounting premiums.

  • SteveM

    It would probably take 10 minutes for someone to invent a little hand pump cheat device to circumvent the test. (To be made in China of course.)

    As an alternative, the government should mandate a Beltway Nitwit Test to start your car. Making political hacks like LaHood housebound where they could cause less mischief.

  • SolipsisticToo

    “who emphasized the system was envisioned as optional equipment in future cars and voluntary for auto manufacturers.”

    Don’t let the facts get in the way of your ideology.

  • Pingback: In future, cars might decide if driver is drunk @ 2012 Presidential Election Year

  • Brutus2

    Not that such an intrusion is ever expected by proponents to remain optional by the consumer anyway. DaHood expects that the insurance industry and the (mostly government-owned) auto industry to use the temtation he dangles, so as to keep government fingerprints off of this “regulation by show-and-tell”.
    As for ever having a “reliable” device, with Americans in the midst of a hand-sanitizer addiction and with most perfumes and mouthwashes being alcohol-based? Well, let’s just say I have my doubts when the expensive, court-approved breathalyzers the police have suffer unacceptably high error rates, that this personal spy could be acceptably reliable for those who cannot get to work, the doctor (or worse, the hospital), or many other vital trips that could be disrupted.

  • mapletree

    People like him are upset that prohibition amendment of the constitution was repealed and is trying to reinstate it through an alternate way.

    • MerryJ1

      Nah, he’s just a control freak. What we actually DO need is some kind of fail-safe gizmo to prohibit his ilk from ever serving in any official capacity at any level of government.

  • chuck in st paul

    “as ubiquitous as air bags or anti-lock brakes”

    Both of which are dangerous to your health. Airbags were FORCED on us by government bimbo looking for ‘a legacy’ on her way out. They have killed hundreds of children and small adults.

    Anti-lock brakes seem like a good idea. Except they are not for a trained driver. My folks next door neighbor wound up in a roll over because the damn breaks kept unlocking as he panic stopped on a rough (construction) road. He had to steer into the ditch because he couldn’t stop before creaming traffic in front of him and it rolled his car. Car totalled, him in the hospital. Some friction is better than NO friction.

  • chuck in st paul

    Minnesota, -36 degrees, I’m sure those sensors will work really well. And why would I take off my gloves to start driving when I could literally freeze my skin to the steering wheel before the car warms up?

    These people live in an Alice in Wonderland world that bears little or no resemblance to the real world.

  • didacticrogue

    LaHood continues to illustrate for us exactly where his allegiances lie in the ideological battle of personal liberty and responsibility vs. the nanny state.

    Like disabling cell phones (not to mention the debacle that was the federal safety belt interlock mandate), this is a very bad idea. That this guy keeps going to the well again and again with the same kinds of ideas speaks volumes about both his mindset and his intelligence.

    Stupid is as stupid does.

  • The_anniebanannie

    Another brilliant idea from Ray Disable-cellphones LaHood.

  • TommyV

    Oh wonderful….let’s have some more rules Ray.

    Maybe you can come out to eat with us and tell me when I’ve had enough. Maybe Odumbo will take his new technological focus and come up with a rectal breathalyzer indicator that we’ll have to have up our rears and when it detects we’ve had enough an alarm sounds in the White House and Eric Holder slides down his pole and comes after us personally with Ray LaHood driving.

    I don’t believe I’m that far off.