It may well be the season to be merry, but it’s also a time to reflect on the lives affected by alcohol-impaired driving fatalities. Driving while under the influence of alcohol (DUI) remains a serious problem all over the world. In the United States 29% of the total vehicle traffic fatalities in 2017 were alcohol related. However, there is technology that can prevent people who have been drinking alcohol and have impaired driving skills.
Alcohol interlock devices have been proven to prevent alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. There is also a new program that is testing unobtrusive sensors that will be available from automakers in the future.
Locking Out Offenders
An alcohol ignition interlock device is a breathalyzer that is installed in the vehicle of a convicted DUI driver in which the driver has to blow into an alcohol sensor, the breath is tested for the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and checked to make sure it is at a safe level before the vehicle can be started.
“We estimate that if all states had all-offender alcohol interlock laws more than 500 lives would be saved a year and countless injuries,” says Russ Rader, Vice President of Communications for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). A recent IIHS report found that if all-offender interlock laws were in every state, it would reduce the number of impaired driver-related fatal crashes by 16%.
The IIHS report notes that, even when they are mandated for first offenders, interlocks come into play only after a DUI arrest, so their direct purpose is to reduce repeat offending. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the average drunk driver drives intoxicated 80 times before their first arrest.
However, alcohol ignition interlock devices are costly and intrusive. For some advocates, present American DUI laws don’t go far enough. In the U.S. all states except for Utah define DUI at 0.08% BAC.
“Alcohol interlocks are great tools that help measure the alcohol level for convicted offenders. However, without changing the laws to a 0.05% BAC level, lives are still being endangered,” says Michael Scippa, Director of Public Affairs, Alcohol Justice, an alcohol industry watchdog. It wants to lower the legal BAC level to 0.05% like other parts of the world.
Scippa says that the National Highway Transportation Safety Board recommended that all states decrease the illegal blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05 BAC, a level at which the risk of having an accident increases by 39%. Countries with .05% BAC laws include Australia, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, South Africa and Spain.
The best solution may be to have a system in vehicles like other Advanced Driver Safety Systems, the system detects alcohol levels and is built into the vehicle through an air vent, start button or gear shift knob. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) Program is a public-private partnership between the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They are testing breath-based and touch-based alcohol detection.
“We are currently in the trial-phase of testing breath-based detection through inlets in vehicles with humans subjects in various locations,” says Bud Zaouk, President of KEA Technologies, Inc, the company overseeing the research and development of alcohol detection technology for the DADSS Research Program.
The touch-based system is from SenseAir, and its tier one auto supplier, Autoliv. The air is captured in a chamber on either the driver’s door or steering wheel. The cavity has mirrors that shine mid-IR infrared light on the air, exciting the molecules so that the amount and CO2, ethanol and BAC can be measured.
“Currently we are testing to fine-tune it and are updating it every couple of months for faster improvement,” says Zaouk. Next year it will be testing touch-based alcohol detection from TruTouch Technologies. The touch-based solid-state system analyzes alcohol found beneath the skin’s surface, spectroscopically measuring the blood alcohol content detected in the capillaries.
“We’re moving as fast as we can for this life-saving technology but we do have to make sure it meets stringent performance criteria. It has to be accurate, precise and work in less than a half of a second,” says Zaouk.
DADSS will be designed to automatically detect when a driver is intoxicated with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above 0.08% and prevent the car from moving. It is programmable to a zero-tolerance policy by parents for their teen drivers.
“The car’s air conditioning, heating and other systems will still work, but the car will not move,” said Zaouk. He says the automakers then will design warning systems in the form of lights, alarms or other warnings. He expects DADSS technology will be first introduced for commercial fleet vehicles and then in consumers’ passenger vehicles.
If DADSS prevents fully-impaired drivers at 0.08% BAC drivers from getting on the road, we could prevent thousands of fatalities a year says Russ Rader. He predicts: “In the future, we may see a day when we can end alcohol-impaired driving entirely.”
“I’m encouraged by the technology. The sooner we can get DADSS technology into cars the better,” says Scippio who suggests that it be made standard like airbags.
“It’s important for the public to know that DADSS is a safety system and not a punitive device,” says Zaouk. He hopes that DADSS will be the safety belt of our generation.