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In-vehicle system may prevent drunk driving

Automakers and NHTSA developing on-board alcohol-level analysis technology

Published: June 7, 2015, 8:00 PM
Updated: June 9, 2015, 10:40 PM

CAA drunk diriving simulator - A woman uses a driving simulator that recreates the experience of driving under the influence of alcohol. She is wearing glasses that distort her vision. By Ich at English Wikipedia

If the U.S. government has its way, one of the freedoms drivers currently hold may be taken away. And that’s a good thing.

The U.S.’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking at restricting the freedom most drivers enjoy today — the opportunity to have a few drinks, and in many cases way too many, and get behind the wheel to drive home. And if it succeeds, it may become the next big standard vehicle safety system, taking its place alongside current systems such as rollover protection and collision mitigation.

NHTSA is working with the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS), a collective of 17 auto manufacturers, to develop Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) — a program to develop technologies that assesses a driver’s state of inebriation and prevents a vehicle from being standard.

It should be noted, though, that although the technology has the capacity to save thousands of lives each year, both NHTSA and ACTS wish the solution is to be voluntary, and not mandated or legislated into practice. It also needs to be seamless, precise, reliable in its in-vehicle installation and publicly favourable.

The thought of breathalyzer technology has been around for decades, but in today’s world it’s just another example of how you can make driving safer by taking the human element out of safety decisions made behind the wheel. The DADSS program is nearing the end of Phase II — the testing of touch and breath sensors to improve accuracy and precision of the testing equipment, while reducing the time it takes to take measurements — and preparing for installation in test vehicles for real-world evaluation.

Phase III started in 2013 and is being conducted concurrently with Phase II. It involves physiologically and ergonomically developing technology and instruments to incorporate them into the vehicle environment and make them easy to use. It’s an ongoing phase that will run in parallel with future phases until implementation.

The program started in 2008 with the research and analysis into touch-based (to measure the amount of alcohol in human tissue) and breath-based (to assess alcohol concentration in exhaled breath) measurement instruments. The former is more accurate but the latter is faster.

Although the ultimate aim is to reduce drunks getting behind the wheel, auto manufacturers want to ensure the system is unobtrusive in the cabin and doesn’t inconvenience sober drivers.

The system also has to take into account that although the general blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08 percent, some jurisdictions have lower legal limits and some are age dependent.