High-Tech Alcohol Detection Devices Being Researched for Cars

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are spending $10 million over five years to develop high-tech “passive” alcohol-detection devices that would keep a car from starting if its driver has been drinking alcohol.

The new devices—which are still in preliminary phases—would be much different from the ignition interlocks that some states, including Ohio, are ordering drunk-driving offenders to install in their cars. Ohio’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter is seeking a law change that would require first-time offenders to install the ignition interlock devices.

Doug Scoles, who heads the Ohio chapter of MADD, says the advanced technology of the new devices being researched is “a totally different animal” from the current devices. Ideas being considered include steering wheels and gear shifts that gauge blood-alcohol levels from a driver’s palm sweat, devices that check sobriety by examining the eye’s dilation, and systems that would detect alcohol levels from the way a laser light reflects off the skin.

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman Wade Newton said that anything developed must be super-accurate, foolproof, small, quick, and noninvasive. Even a tiny failure rate could inconvenience many drivers. “It has to be supported by the public,” he said. “The winning technology won’t even be noticed by the sober driver.”

Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute predicts that the devices will cut into alcohol sales and hurt the restaurant industry. She said it’s “a drastic move on the part of anti-alcohol activism that puts people in a scenario where they’re guilty before proven innocent every time they step into their car.”

Longwell said the devices would have to be set below the legal threshold for drunkenness to account for fluctuations in a driver’s blood-alcohol levels, which would eliminate responsible drivers’ abilities to “have a champagne toast, beer at a ballgame, or wine at dinner.”

"This would put big brother in the back seat to go after a problem comprised of a small minority of people with alcohol abuse disorder," she said. "You are essentially making it so people can drink nowhere except alone in their homes."

However, representatives of the auto industry, federal Transportation Department, and MADD say the devices would only affect drivers whose blood-alcohol level is above the legal limit of 0.08, and that the devices won’t be mandatory.

Misty Mose, MADD national spokeswoman, said that the devices could be an option that drivers might choose to get insurance discounts. Rae Tyson of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said parents might buy them for use in young drivers’ cars.

"I don't think anyone knows yet whether it's possible to develop something accurate enough to put into use someday," said Tyson. "We view it as something that would strictly be a voluntary option. At the end of five years we'll look at the program and decide whether it's worth continuing. "

Posted on July 23rd, 2009
Posted in Drunk Driving

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