Breathalyzers to be Installed in All New Cars?

Posted by Jon Ibanez on March 30th, 2015

Think of all of the things that could come with a new car when the salesman tells you that it is fully equipped. I bet you’re thinking of satellite radio, heated seats, dashboard navigation, and maybe park assistance. I’m sure you weren’t thinking of a pre-installed breathalyzer, the use of which is required to start the car; a permanent ignition interlock device if you will.

I’ve written in the past on Nissan’s high-tech, DUI-preventing smart car which contains several types of sensors that detects, amongst other things, the presence of alcohol on the driver.

A highly sensitive alcohol sensor built into the transmission shift knob is able to detect the presence of alcohol in the driver’s palm sweat when they grasp the knob. The transmission will lock, immobilizing the vehicle if the alcohol detected in the sweat meets a pre-designated level. The vehicle will also be equipped with sensors located in the driver’s and passenger’s seat to detect the presence of alcohol in the air. If alcohol is detected in the cabin of the vehicle, a voice alert will notify the driver and a message will appear on the navigation monitor.

Could such technology actually prevent DUIs? According a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health the answer is yes.

“Alcohol interlocks are used very effectively in all 50 states as a component of sentencing or as a condition for having a license reinstated after DUIs, but this only works for the drunk drivers caught by police and it doesn’t catch the people who choose to drive without a license to avoid having the interlock installed,” said lead author Dr. Patrick Carter, an emergency physician with the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor. “If we decided that every new car should have an alcohol ignition interlock that’s seamless to use for the driver and doesn’t take any time or effort, we suddenly have a way to significantly reduce fatalities and injuries that doesn’t rely solely on police.”

Carter and his researchers used U.S. records on traffic accidents and fatalities from 2006 to 2010 to determine the number of incidents that were alcohol related. They then estimated how many of these incidents could be avoided in the future with the pre-installed ignition interlock devices on all new vehicles.

The researchers assumed that it would take 15 years to phase out older cars without pre-installed ignition interlock devices with new vehicles that are equipped with pre-installed ignition interlock devices.

Carter concluded that “over 15 years, 85% of crash fatalities and 84% to 88% of nonfatal injuries attributed to drinking drivers would be prevented.” This amounts to 59,554 lives. They also estimate that this will save an estimated $342 billion in injury-related costs.

There’s no way to know how accurate Carter’s estimates are or will be if pre-installed ignition interlock devices become standardized in all new vehicles.

And although the study just dealt with projected effects of such technology, I still have several questions regarding the technology itself:

Will the pre-installed ignition interlock devices be as accurate in determining the BAC of a driver as a breath or blood test used by law enforcement (breathalyzer can fairly inaccurate)? Will the technology need to be regularly calibrated like breathalyzers used by law enforcement and current ignition interlock devices? Will data be stored such that it can later be used against a driver in a DUI case?

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  • llDayo

    Let’s not forget that if the driver is sober and any passengers have had alcohol the air detectors would also be false.

  • tz

    And will it detect alcohol based anti-bacterial gels, window cleaners, someone doing low-carb in ketosis? Beer cans and bottles being taken in for recycling?

    Can I disable your car just by smearing some of that alcohol based gel on the door handle or pouring some whiskey near the vent intake?

    At least a breathalyzer itself (even though the software is often broken and the hardware detects lots of stuff besides EtOH) happens under more controlled circumstances.

  • MacK

    I wonder if this could be used as a defense against driving drunk?