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Your Car May Soon Know You’re Drunk: NHTSA Extends Agreement with Auto Companies to Develop a Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety

Though it may be years before it comes into effect, your car may eventually be “smart” enough to know when you’re intoxicated, and whether you’re sober enough to get behind the wheel. Researchers in the auto industry are currently working to develop two different technologies that could automatically detect blood-alcohol content (BAC) either through touch or through breath. Researchers and executives at traffic safety research institutes see this new technology as a positive approach to preventing drunk driving, and alcohol-related accidents.

Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has extended its agreement with automobile manufacturers to develop the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). When installed, the system will detect if your BAC is above the legal limit (0.08%) and prevent you from driving if it is over that limit. Unlike current alcohol-detection technology, which requires a driver to blow into a tube and engages an ignition interlock system for impaired drivers (usually outfitted in vehicles of drivers who’ve been convicted of a DUI), the DADSS technology will be less obtrusive.

Senior Vice President for communications at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Russ Rader, referred to current devices as “clunky” and “unreliable,” and said that this new developing technology aims 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.”

Statistically, alcohol plays a factor in more than 30% of fatal car crashes. In 2012, according to the NHTSA, fatal drunken driving crashes topped 10,000-a 5% increase from the year before.

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. Extended for five years at the end of last year, the program will benefit from $6.5 million is committed research from these manufacturers.

The group’s goal 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 face the challenge of determining where to locate the breath-based sensor-it will need to be able to discern between the breath of the driver and passengers. It’s also not yet clear if vehicles would be equipped with one type of technology, or both, Griffin stated. 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 said. The group hopes that by 2018, the technology will be commercially viable, and integrated into new vehicles-rather than being retrofitted into older car models. Successful development of technology would not only help save lives, it would also prevent intoxicated drivers from climbing behind the wheel and being cited for a DUI.

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