Alcohol-Detection Research Backed by Members of Insurance Industry

A coalition representing everyone from safety advocates to auto insurance companies and the alcohol industry is asking Congress to approve $60 million for a five-year research program aimed at outfitting cars with automatic alcohol-detection devices that could keep drunken drivers off the road.

About two dozen groups and companies signed a letter sent last week to leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, calling on them to include the program in the next round of funding for surface transportation programs.

The bill would authorize $12 million a year to fund research conducted jointly by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and automakers to equip cars with systems that could sense whether would-be drivers are under the influence and not allow them to drive.

Drinking and Driving Don't MixThe Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) program is studying “in-vehicle” technology that would measure a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) through means such as touch sensors on the steering wheel or sensors that monitor a motorist’s breath or eye movements.

More than 10,800 people died nationwide in crashes involving a drunken driver in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics were available, according to NHTSA. Those deaths made up 32 percent of all crash fatalities that year.

Alcohol-related accidents cost an estimated $114.3 billion in 2000, according to the agency, including more than $51 million in monetary costs and an estimated $63.2 billion in quality of life losses.

The NHTSA has said its goal is that all vehicles nationwide be voluntarily outfilled with the DADSS technology.

Proponents say the systems should not be a hassle for sober drivers because there would be no requirement to blow into a tube or perform any other test.

“The goal of this research program is to develop a publicly supported technology for vehicles that will instantaneously and passively detect if a driver is drunk (above the legal limit of .08 BAC) and prevent the vehicle from starting,” the letter to Republican and Democratic leaders said. “The technology must also be extremely accurate, inexpensive and a noninvasive optional safety feature.”

A Senate version of the House bill—introduced by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican—was approved in 2010 by a Senate transportation committee.

But not everyone supports the DADSS program.

The American Beverage Institute (ABI), which has urged both chambers of Congress to reject the research program, says efforts would be better spent on reducing the speed of vehicles.

A 2005 study by NHTSA found that about 1,000 people were killed every month in speeding-related accidents. Speeding was a factor in 30 percent of all fatal crashes, according to the agency.

ABI Managing Director Sarah Longwell said the in-vehicle devices would be bound to misread data, if only in a small percentage of cases, resulting in some motorists having their ignitions locked for no reason.

“Limiting car speeds would increase safety without stranding thousands of innocent people,” Longwell said in a news release.  “We all want to increase traffic safety, but to do this we should focus on policies that target drunk drivers, not all Americans.”

The DADSS program was launched in 2008 as a joint effort of NHTSA and a coalition of major automakers, with the $10 million in funding split between the two groups.

Officials say research is still at an early stage, but they believe that alcohol-detection devices could be integrated into vehicles within a decade.

One system being studied uses a touch-based approach that allows for estimates of alcohol in tissue through detection of light absorption. Another method would use part of the infrared light spectrum to detect alcohol concentration in a motorist’s exhaled breath.

In addition to the lives and property lost to drunken driving, industry experts say it causes other losses. A conviction for drunken driving can result in incarceration and loss of employment and can make it far more expensive to buy auto insurance online or in person.

About Gregor McGavin
Gregor McGavin is an award-winning journalist who has reported across the country for such publications as The Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Press-Enterprise.

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