The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) just showcased two new vehicle technologies that could help to put an end to drunk driving, both of which operate by preventing a driver from starting a vehicle if his or her blood alcohol content (BAC) is above the legal limit.
The technologies are part of what the NHTSA is calling the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS,) a movement spearheaded by Mothers Agaisnt Drunk Driving (MADD) and other activist organizations trying to change the way the United States approaches accident prevention. Over 10,000 Americans die each year from drunk driving related accidents, and alcohol consumption is the primary factor in 15 percent of fatal weekday accidents and 31 percent of fatal weekend accidents.
The first of these technologies is being developed by Autoliv Development, a Sweden based tech innovator. At its core, their product is a breathalyzer that controls access to a vehicle's controls, albeit in a far more nuanced way than similar systems that already exist. Rather than requiring a driver to blow into a tube to turn his vehicle on, their system's sensor sits unobtrusively on the vehicle's steering wheel and uses infrared light to measure the alcohol content of the driver's breath as he operates his vehicle.
The second technology is a touch-based system being co-developed by auto parts supplier Takata and TruTouch. Instead of testing a driver's breath, their system works by using infrared light to sample BAC through the skin of a person's fingertips. According to the two companies, their technology can be installed in a range of locations on a vehicle, including a car's start button or its steering wheel.
Both of these systems have the potential to overcome several of the hurdles faced by their forerunners. By continually sampling a driver's BAC, for instance, a car could prevent a drunk driver from convincing a sober person to start his car for him. They would also be able to monitor changes in BAC and lock down a vehicle if its operator is drinking while driving, though this begs the question of how the system would be able to safely shut down a vehicle that's already in motion.
For the time being, however, these potential advantages serve as a double-edged sword. Without being able to safely force a driver to stop his vehicle, the systems' developers would be liable for any damages caused by a driver who became drunk over the course of his trip. A possible way around this flaw would be to the set the maximum BAC allowed for a vehicle start to well below the legal limit, but that would serve as, at best, a minor patch to a bigger problem.
A question also remains regarding false positives read by the device. Given just many people drive cars, and assuming that these technologies would become widespread, even the highest standards of accuracy could leave thousands of sober drivers unable to operate their vehicles every day, a risk that many might see as prohibitive enough to prevent large scale implementation.
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