The most effective way to keep drunken drivers off the road may be to prevent their cars from starting in the first place. A coalition of safety-minded groups has put $10 million toward technology that would make this possible -- and is encouraging Congress to do the same.
The Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have been funding a research program called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, or DADSS. The program has been developing in-vehicle systems designed to prevent those with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit (0.08) from driving.
Currently, ignition interlock devices are the only in-vehicle technology that can ensure a driver's blood-alcohol level is not above legal limit. Ignition interlock devices are small breathalyzers that are wired into a car's electrical system. The vehicle's engine won't start if the driver's blood-alcohol level is above the legal limit or, in the case of convicted drunken drivers, if any alcohol is found in their breath.
However, DADSS hopes to develop technology that is more effective, less intrusive, more affordable, less high-maintenance and more friendly to the general public. DADSS has come up with two non-invasive ways to measure alcohol concentrations: tissue spectrometry and distant spectrometry.
The tissue spectrometry method measures a person's alcohol concentration through touch. According to DADSS, when the driver touches the device, an infrared light scans and penetrates the driver's skin and then returns to the skin's surface where the touch pad collects, analyzes and determines the driver's tissue alcohol concentration.
The distant spectrometry approach measures alcohol concentration using the driver's breath. According to DADSS, distant spectrometry determines the driver's alcohol concentration by measuring the concentrations of carbon dioxide from the driver's breath. This is a contact-free method that DADSS ensures will measure only the driver's breath, not the passengers'.
In a January 2011 statement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asserted that he and other supporters of DADSS aren't advocating that such devices come standard in every car -- and that they won't "prohibit people from enjoying a glass of wine with dinner or a beer at the game."
The research necessary to make such technology requires increased funding. In a letter to Congress, supporters of DADSS asked for $12 million annually for five years to put toward DADSS research and development. This money would be tapped from safety funds tucked into a transportation bill that the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is developing.
It's a lot of money, but backers of DADSS say that it would save lives. If these new detection devices were used in all vehicles, they could prevent more than 8,000 drunken driving deaths annually, according to DADSS.
The request for increased funding has been endorsed by a slew of groups, including AAA, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, auto insurance companies like State Farm and Nationwide, and the National Beer Wholesalers Association.