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New Alcohol Detection Technology Could Save Thousands Of Lives

January 30, 2011

Federal officials and researchers said Friday that an alcohol-detection prototype that uses automatic sensors to instantly gauge a driver’s fitness to be on the road has the potential to save thousands of lives.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited QinetiQ North America, a research and development facility, for the first public demonstration of systems that could measure whether a motorist has a blood alcohol content at or above the legal limit of .08 and prohibiting the vehicle from starting.

The technology is being designed as unobtrusive, unlike current alcohol ignition interlock systems.  

The Driver Alcohol Detection Systems for Safety would use sensors that would measure blood alcohol content in one of two possible ways:  either by analyzing a driver’s breath or through the skin.

The researchers said that both methods eliminate the need for drivers to take any extra steps, and those who are sober would not be delayed in getting on the road.

The technology is “another arrow in our automotive safety quiver,” LaHood told The Associated Press.  He emphasized that the system was envisioned as optional equipment in future cars and voluntary for auto manufacturers.

David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, estimated that the technology could prevent as many as 9,000 fatal alcohol-related crashes a year in the U.S.

Strickland said that the systems would not be employed unless they are “seamless, unobtrusive and unfailingly accurate.”

The initial $10 million research program is funded by NHTSA and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety.

Critics doubt if the technology could even be perfected to the point that it would be fully reliable and not stop some completely sober people from driving.

“Even if the technology is 99.9 percent reliable, that’s still tens of thousands of cars that won’t start every day,” Longwell told AP.

Her group also questions whether an .08 limit would actually be high enough to stop all drunken drivers, since blood alcohol content can rise in people during a trip depending on factors like how recently they drank and how much they ate.

“It’s going to eliminate the ability of people to have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer at a ball game and then drive home, something that is perfectly safe and currently legal in all 50 states,” she said.

LaHood said that the threshold in cars would never be set below the legal limit.

Laura Dean Mooney, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told AP that the technology could “turn cars into the cure.”

She said she could envision it someday becoming as ubiquitous as air bags or anti-lock brakes in today’s cars, particularly if insurance companies provide incentives for drivers to use those systems by discounting premiums.

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