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Breathalyzers in steering wheels could save thousands of lives each year

Breathalyzers in steering wheels could save thousands of lives each year


The Department of Transport has partnered with car manufacturers to develop the technology

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Can you imagine breathing into your car's steering wheel to prove you're sober enough to drive? It sounds far-fetched, but it's a technology that the US Department of Transport (DOT) is seriously investigating as a solution to drunk driving. Last week, it unveiled its latest research into two types of in-car alcohol sensors: the first is a breathalyzer housed in the steering wheel, and the second is an infrared sensor that scans the skin. Both technologies check if a driver's blood alcohol concentration is at or above 0.08 (the legal limit in all 50 states) and then lock down the car if the driver is too intoxicated to drive.

The technology is being researched under the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety program or DADSS. It's currently only in the research stage, but its backers — including car manufacturers such as BMW, Ford, and General Motors — say it could save thousands of lives every year. Although roads in the US are getting safer (driving related deaths fell by nearly a quarter in the last decade), the DOT notes that nearly 10,000 people are still killed every year by alcohol-impaired crashes. It estimates that in-car alcohol sensors could save 7,000 lives annually.

"A powerful new tool in the battle against drunk driving."

"[This technology] has enormous potential to prevent drunk driving in specific populations such as teen drivers and commercial fleets," said Mark Rosekind, the administrator of the Department of Transport's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in a press statement. "Making it an option available to vehicle owners would provide a powerful new tool in the battle against drunk driving deaths."

070803-02-01.0.jpgNissan's prototype vehicle used a sensor in the gear stick. (Nissan)

Just because something is technologically feasible though, doesn't mean it will ever be widely adopted. Back in 2007, Nissan unveiled its own prototype car that detected a driver's blood alcohol using a sensor in the gear stick, but the technology never went beyond the concept stage. Similarly, although some DUI offenders are forced to install in-car breathalyzers before they're allowed back on the road (the technology is similar to DADSS' proposals but slower and more bulky), it's unlikely that the majority of drivers would voluntarily submit to the same checks as convicted criminals.

However, as Rosekind notes, in-car breathalyzers could still find a place in the market if targeted at "specific populations." If the technology was approved at a federal level, for example, then worried parents might have it installed when their children learn to drive. Similarly, trucking companies might outfit their fleets with the sensors not only to save lives but also reduce insurance costs. Deaths caused by drunk driving are all ultimately preventable — and having the technology available seems better than no option at all.