In the near future, drivers may have the option to have an alcohol-sensing device installed in their new car. And not long after that, the device could be standard equipment, like airbags and seatbelts. Congress has just approved a long-term transportation bill that includes $5 million in funds over two years for the development of alcohol-sensing technology, which would not allow a driver to drive his or her vehicle with a high blood alcohol content (BAC).
Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADDS) researchers are testing a variety of methods to non-invasively measure a driver’s BAC. One method is ‘tissue spectrometry’, which would use sensors in locations the driver puts his hands, such as the shifter or steering wheel, to measure BAC through the fingertips. Another method is ‘distant spectrometry’, which would use several sensors in the car to measure BAC from a driver’s breath from a distance.
Even though the technology has the potential to save many lives and dramatically reduce the number of DUI arrests, which is around 1.4 million yearly, some groups staunchly oppose this funding. A group representing the restaurant industry maintains that the bill should not have been passed because it “uses American taxpayer dollars to fund something they’re not going to want in their cars.” Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute believes that the device’s cutoff to allow a driver to drive would not be .08% BAC for liability reasons (.08% is the legal limit to drive in all 50 states). She points out that it takes time for alcohol to metabolize and enter the bloodstream, and someone could have had several drinks in rapid succession and be below the .08% when he enters the car, but then rise above that threshold some time later. However, a spokesperson for DADSS maintains that the devices would in fact be set at .08%. In addition, Longwell says that even if the device were 99.99966% accurate, there would still be over 4,000 misreadings per day across the country.
While there are several technological and legal hurdles that must be overcome, these alcohol-sensing devices could one day make it into every new vehicle on the road. Researchers expect it to be an option in cars in as little as 8-10 years.