Future technology may put the brakes on drunk drivers and save many lives if researchers at QinetiQ North America, Waltham, Massachusetts have their way. They are developing a system that will prevent a car from starting if the driver's blood alcohol level is higher than the legal limit.
The concept is similar to the alcohol ignition interlock systems that are often court-ordered for convicted drunk drivers, however it would be sleeker and less obtrusive.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 32 people die in alcohol-related accidents every day, making an "alcohol-detecting" car extremely appealing to the U.S. Transportation department.
The new technology, known as the Driver Alcohol Detection Systems for Safety, would use sensors that would measure blood alcohol content of the driver in two possible ways, by analysing a driver's breath or through the skin, using sophisticated touch-based sensors situated in places like steering wheels and door locks.
If the system detects the blood alcohol content in a person to be above the legal limit of .08, the vehicle would not start. The technology is being developed by research and development facility QinetiQ North America Inc in conjunction with companies in Sweden and New Mexico for local car manufacturers.
QinetiQ engineers said that unlike court-ordered breath-analyser ignition locks, which require a driver to blow into a tube and wait a few seconds for the result, their systems will analyse a driver's blood-alcohol content in less than one second.
The project was set up in 2008 with a grant of USD 10 million from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, an industry group representing many of the world's car makers. It ends in 2013. The first working prototypes of the systems were demonstrated near here at an event attended by US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited the lab for a demonstration on Friday. He told the AP that the technology is “another arrow in our automotive safety quiver." He also said that the technology would not be mandated, but would be optional for manufacturers to include in the future.
In the demonstration, a woman in her 20s, weighing about 120 pounds tried to start a vehicle after drinking two, 1 1/2 ounce glasses of vodka and orange juice about 30 minutes apart, also eating some cheese and crackers in between. Her blood alcohol content registered .06, which would allow her to start the car.
Head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), David Strickland, also attended the demonstration. He said that the technology could help 9,000 alcohol-related traffic fatalities be avoided every year.
But some critics argue that the system could never be 100% accurate. Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute said, "Even if the technology is 99.9 percent reliable, that's still tens of thousands of cars that won't start every day.
Strickland however said that the technology would not be implemented unless it's "seamless, unobtrusive, and unfailingly accurate."