One day, a friend might not have to take your car keys away if you overindulge. Instead, it could be up to your car to determine whether you're sober enough to drive.
Researchers now are working on the development of two different technologies that could automatically detect your blood-alcohol content (BAC) either through your touch or your breath.
"There's a lot of promise if a system can be developed that would stop any driver that's been drinking from getting on the road," says Russ Rader, senior vice president for communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently extended its agreement with automobile manufacturers to develop the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). The system would detect if your BAC was above the legal limit of 0.08 percent and prevent you from driving if it's too high.
This technology would be unlike current alcohol-detecting ignition interlock systems, which might be outfitted in someone's vehicle if he's convicted of driving under the influence. Those systems require the driver to blow into a tube and prevent the vehicle from starting if alcohol is detected.
Rader calls the current devices, "a very clunky system," while the DADSS project is working to develop "unobtrusive detection when a driver is impaired by alcohol."
"It's important that the system be accurate, unobtrusive and completely reliable," Rader says.
The aim is to "stop a drunk driver from getting on the road in the first place, rather than arresting them after the fact, or worse yet, after a crash," he says.
Right now, alcohol is a factor in about one-third of fatal crashes. In 2012, crash deaths involving drunken drivers topped 10,000, up nearly 5 percent from the previous year, according to NHTSA.
J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says the DADSS project stems from a five-year, $10 million cooperation agreement signed in 2008 between NHTSA and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS), made up of 15 auto manufacturers.
The program was extended for five years at the end of 2013 and the groups committed $6.5 million more to support the research.
MADD is one of the organizations with representatives on the blue ribbon panel formed to advise DADSS.
The hope is to have a research vehicle, equipped with both the touch-based technology and the breath-based technology, completed in early 2015.
Among the issues for researchers are where to locate the touch-based sensor, Griffin says. Possibilities include the push-button start, gear shift or steering wheel shaft.
Researchers also have to determine where to locate the breath-based sensor. It will need to be able to discern between the breath of the driver and passengers, he says.
And they have to tackle issues such as how the touch technology will work if someone is wearing gloves, and how the breath technology will work in a convertible, Griffin says.
It's also not yet clear if vehicles would be equipped with one type of technology, or both, he says.
Another issue will be how to ensure the technology holds up in the harsh environment of a vehicle, which can be subjected to wildly different weather conditions, Rader says.
"It's still very much a research project," Griffin says. "I think at the end of the day they will figure out the technology and figure out how to make it work."
Griffin says researchers hope the technology will be commercially viable by the time the latest five-year agreement between NHTSA and auto manufacturers expires in 2018.
The technology is most likely to be integrated into new vehicles, rather than being retrofitted into older models, he says.
And if it follows the path of other technological breakthroughs, high-end cars would be equipped with it first, and then it would trickle down to less expensive vehicle, Griffin says.
Rader says the hope is that once the technology is viable, it would soon be widely available, and drive down the rate of alcohol-related fatalities.
In the early 1980s, about half of those killed in traffic accidents involved drunken driving. By the mid-1990s it had fallen to about one-third of fatalities, but has stalled at that level.
It's not clear why progress stalled in the 1990s, and Rader says officials hope "this (technology) could jump start the process."
Successful development of technology would not only help save lives, it would also prevent you from climbing behind the wheel when you've drunk too much and be cited for DUI.
Auto insurance rates are likely to double or even triple if you're convicted of DUI. You're also likely to spend time in jail, lose your license and be fined, according to Penny Gusner, consumer analyst at CarInsurance.com.
This move to prevent drunk driving comes at a time when more states are considering legalizing medical marijuana, Colorado is now allowing the sale of recreational marijuana, and Washington will soon follow suit.
Rader says so far evidence has been mixed on the effects of marijuana on crash risk. "Alcohol-impaired driving is by far the bigger problem."
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