Can Alcohol Sensors in All Cars Eliminate Drunk Driving?

Posted by Jon Ibanez on June 8th, 2015

Last week federal officials said that new technology which could be installed in all new cars in the next five years could eliminate drunk driving.

The new technology, however, isn’t doing anything we’re not already doing: preventing a vehicle from being started by someone who has a blood alcohol content above the legal limit. What is different is the method by which this is being accomplished.

Passive breath sensors or touch-sensitive contact points on a starter button or gear shift would immediately register the blood alcohol content of a driver. Unlike the ignition interlock devices, which require a driver to blow into a tube to provide a breath sample and start a car, drivers of vehicles with the new technology need not do anything for a BAC level to be detected.

“The message today is not ‘Can we do this?’ but ‘How soon can we do this?’ ” said Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “It is a huge step forward.”

Although cost estimates of the new technology have not yet been made, officials anticipate the costs, once the sensors go into general production, to be comparable to the cost of seat belts or air bags; about $150-$200 per vehicle.

Unlike other safety features like backup cameras, which the NHTSA made mandatory beginning in 2014, the new alcohol detection technology would not be required by automakers. Instead, the technology would be offered as an upgrade to new vehicles.

“These devices have to be quick, accurate and easy to use for the automakers to put them on their platforms,” said Bud Zaouk who runs the laboratory where the technology is being developed.

Developers are still working on refining the technology to ensure accuracy. Their goal is also to allow the technology to produce blood alcohol readings in less than a second and to work for at least 10 years or 157,000 miles without calibration or maintenance.

Not surprisingly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has expressed its support for the new technology. Colleen Sheehey-Church, president of MADD, addressed an audience at NHTSA.

“This is the future,” she said, gesturing toward a vehicle equipped with prototype detection gear, “when drunk drivers will be unable to drive their cars. If this technology was available in 2004, my son, Dustin, might be alive today.”

Sheehey-Church’s son died in the back seat of a car when the driver  who was drunk drove into a river in 2004.

In all that I’ve heard and read about the new technology, the NHTSA has yet to address some glaring problems.

Unlike an ignition interlock device, which is intended to only detect the blood alcohol content of the driver, the passive alcohol detection devices will be detecting alcohol located in the air of the vehicle whether it’s coming from the driver’s seat, passenger’s seat, or even the back seats.

If such is the case, what’s the point of having a designated driver? In fact, this is just the tip of the iceberg of questions yet to be addressed.

Will the technology detect alcohol coming from something other than a drunk driver such as mouthwash, perfumes, or hand sanitizer? Will bartenders have to shower and change clothes before heading home after a shift? Will the technology work with open windows? What about convertibles or motorcycles?

If you ask me, let’s just focus on self-driving cars to reduce drunk driving.

Share