Feds to (Finally) Explore Drunk Driving Prevention Tech

Image via Creative Commons
Image via Creative Commons

America’s top safety agency is finally exploring new vehicle technology that could end the impaired driving epidemic for good — and advocates say we need to make it mandatory on all new cars, despite political hurdles.

On Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration quietly issued a request for information on late- or end-stage automotive technology that detects when drivers are impaired and prevents them from starting their cars. The request alone, of course, won’t actually obligate automakers to put such life-saving devices on their vehicles anytime soon, but it’s a promising sign that the NHTSA is at least exploring the easily available solutions to our national drunk driving epidemic, which kills an American road user every 50 minutes — and it could strengthen the prospects of legislation that would someday require car manufacturers to make the overdue change.

“[It’s] a step in the right direction, [but] the Agency should be taking major leaps … to require impairment detection systems in all new vehicles,” said Cathy Chase, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “With every passing day, lives are needlessly hanging in the balance.”

We’re way beyond blowing into a tube

Since the first on-board “interlock” alcohol-sensing device was installed on a steering wheel back in 1969, booze detection technology has been poised to prevent as much as 30 percent of U.S. roadway deaths — which would translate to approximately 9,409 lives saved every year if devices were installed on every car. (And yes, it has to be every car: an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that if the devices were “only required for drivers with an alcohol-impaired driving conviction within the past five years and only blocked them from driving at a BAC above 0.08 percent, they would avert a maximum of 837 crash deaths per year.”)

But like seatbelts and airbags before them, federal agencies like NHTSA have been reluctant to require the life-saving devices on new vehicles due to pressure from the auto industry, which does not want to pay the costs of implementing the reform (and most American car buyers don’t want to pay extra for technology that could save their own lives, not to mention prevent them from committing one of the most common forms of vehicular homicide).

A 2009 survey found that more than two-thirds of U.S. drivers would welcome an alcohol detection device on their vehicle as long as it was “fast, accurate and unobtrusive,” but fewer than half said they’d pay anything extra for such a system, even if the cost was as modest as $500.

Alcohol detection devices do cost money — but when it comes to speed, accuracy and discretion, the tech has never been better.

NHTSA itself supported the development of an on-board sensor that can detect the presence of alcohol on a driver’s breath from the ambient air within the car, rather than requiring the driver to exhale into a tube. A similar device detects the presence of alcohol in a driver’s skin when she attempts to activate her push-button ignition by simply shining light through the top few layers of the epidermis. Neither device hasn’t gotten much traction because neither can yet detect the level of alcohol in a driver’s blood — which wouldn’t be a problem if America did the right thing and lowered the allowable blood alcohol content for drivers to zero, and replaced selective (read: racist) DWI enforcement by armed police with DWI-preventing technology that obviates the need for police encounters with drunk drivers altogether.

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Sensors that detect the presence of alcohol in the ambient air surrounding a driver could be a game changer for public safety. Source: Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety Program

But if a zero-tolerance policy proves politically untenable in the short term, impairment-detecting technology can still help save lives right now.

In 2007, Nissan recognized that even legal blood alcohol levels effect different people in vastly different ways, and developed a concept car that used AI-assisted camera technology to “monitor the driver’s state of consciousness through the blinking of the eyes.” When the system detects signs of drunkenness or drowsiness, the system emits a loud sound to alert drivers to pull over, while also tightening the seatbelt to get them to sit up straight and pay attention until they can safely park their car.

Today’s burgeoning autonomous vehicle technology could, theoretically, do the Nissan tech one better, by briefly taking over for the impaired driver and guiding the vehicle to the side of the road. (That may, in fact, be one of the best uses for autonomous vehicle technology, which is nowhere near ready to pilot full trips, and, of course, will only amplify the many other problems with auto-centricity in our culture if they ever make it to the road at any scale.)

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Nissan’s facial recognition technology could scan for signs of impairment and drowiness way back in 2007. Source: Nissan

Nissan’s concept car also came equipped with another technology that has improved drastically in the last decade: AI-assisted sensors that can feel when a driver is behaving in an erratic way consistent with drunk driving, and take action to safely stop the vehicle.

In 2019, Volvo announced that all its new cars would soon come equipped with driver monitoring systems that would intervene with an alert if the system detected “a complete lack of steering input for extended periods of time…as well as extreme weaving across lanes or excessively slow reaction times,” in addition to basic speed-limiting devices that are already becoming the standard in Europe; again, that isn’t nearly good enough, but it’s heartening that the company is at least attempting to “start a conversation about whether car makers have the right or maybe even the obligation to install technology in cars that changes their drivers’ behavior,” as it said in a statement at the time.

A technology in search of a policy

Of course, American road users shouldn’t have to rely on the imperfect largesse of automakers to keep them safe from the most easily preventable types of roadway crashes. But NHTSA’s request for information could potentially bring a universe of life-saving technology right to the agency’s doorstep — and help remove any excuse Congress might have to dither on implementing it in every vehicle on our roads.

And the legislation to make it happen is already written. The Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone Act (RIDES), which would make alcohol detection systems mandatory on all new cars by 2024, has been languishing in the Senate since last October — but it could easily be taken up again if Americans elect lawmakers who recognize how vital it is that we reform our national embarrassment of a  vehicle safety program.

When paired with a broader slate of reforms that put easy, safe access to transit outside of every bar, restaurant or anywhere else people might imbibe, impaired driving detection technology has the potential to end the drunk driving epidemic in our lifetimes. The only question is whether we have the courage to do it — and stop relying on violent and insufficient law enforcement solutions to manage a problem they were never equipped to solve.

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