A massive $305 billion Federal Highway Bill signed into law by President Obama has been on the books for about two weeks. Now, we’re learning that it also includes a chunk of change to develop alcohol sensors to fight drunk driving. There’s a $21 million provision that would give a funding boost to the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, known as DADSS.
The DADSS technology automatically detects when a driver has a blood alcohol concentration at or above .08, currently deemed illegal in every state. Rather than requiring drivers to blow into a Breathalyzer, the system integrates passive sensors into the car to ‘unobtrusively’ measure BAC and disable the vehicle if the reading is not below the legal threshold.
One method involves a finger-scanning infrared sensor built directly into the ignition button. Another detects alcohol in exhaled air, and whether it’s from the driver or another passenger. Researchers are still trying to figure out how accurate it is.
Proponents view DADSS as a way to help prevent thousands of deaths on U.S. roads each year. Developed through a partnership between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and major automakers, the technology has been presented as a voluntary feature — “an option available to vehicle owners” according to NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind.
Not surprisingly, there are critics. They argue that like backup cameras, the ‘optional’ aspect could be only a temporary step toward mandatory integration in new vehicles. Others observe that the most dangerous drunks will find easy ways to avoid the technology, minimizing the impact on road deaths. Another issue centers on the expected ‘safety margin’ in the BAC measurements.
“A former program manager of DADSS conceded that the devices will be set with a safety margin, imposing a de facto legal limit as low as .05 or .04,” says Sarah Longwell with the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant organization that aims to protect responsible alcohol consumption. Both NHTSA and supporters of the program, such as MADD, admit the ultimate goal is to make these devices standard in all new cars.”
There’s no timeframe yet for bringing this technology from the prototype phase into the real-world.