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Your Car May Soon Say 'No' to Drunk Driving

DUI sobriety check
DUIs and DUI deaths could theoretically cease to exist if ignition interlock devices (in-car Breathalyzers) are mandated by law. Doug Menuez/Forrester Images/Getty Images

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In the United States alone, 30 people die every day in drunk-driving-related crashes. That equates to one person every 48 minutes. But simple technology to prevent — and possibly even end — drunk driving exists. So why aren't carmakers required to implement it?

New legislation in the United States aims to do just that: require all new cars be equipped with alcohol detection systems by 2024. The Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone Act of 2019, known as the RIDE Act, was introduced to Congress by Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who co-sponsored the Senate bill, and Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) in the House. The lawmakers believe the law could save 7,000 lives per year.

"[Sen. Tom] Udall saw the success that ignition interlock technology had in reducing the number of alcohol-related driving fatalities in New Mexico and sees alcohol detection technology as a big part of the solution in preventing drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel," Ned Adriance, Sen. Tom Udall's communications director, says via email.

The Ride Act of 2019

The Ride Act doesn't just call for automakers to implement alcohol detection technology on their own. The bill also provides funding for research and development of "advanced alcohol detection software." The legislation will establish a pilot program of fleet vehicles equipped with the software, including those from federal, state and private partners, a press statement says. That means the technology will be tested on vehicles before being mandated for consumers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is also partnering with automobile manufacturers to develop alcohol detection systems that can be installed in vehicles. The NHTSA will work with the private Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, as well as directly with vehicle manufacturers, suppliers and other interested parties, including institutions of higher education with expertise in automotive engineering to develop the technology.

Once the pilot program is underway, results will initially be evaluated in the first 12 months, and again every 180 days. The target for implementing the federally mandated technology in all new vehicles will be no more than two years after the law is enacted.

How the DUI Technology Works

As for how it will actually work? We can get some insight from current technology, though that doesn't necessarily reflect the future. An ignition interlock device (IID) is essentially a Breathalyzer connected to a car's ignition system. Once it's installed, the car won't start until someone breathes into the IID with an alcohol-free breath. Drivers also can't disconnect the devices without damaging the vehicle.

It's possible for a driver to trick these devices by having someone else provide the breath sample, but the devices also demand "rolling samples" at regular intervals while the vehicle is in motion, making it difficult for anyone other than the driver to comply.

And the statistics show they work. In May 2019, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) announced that in-car Breathalyzers stopped drivers who were drunk from starting their cars more than 3 million times since 2006. That's when MADD began pushing for ignition interlocks for every drunk driver. MADD collected its data from 11 ignition interlock manufacturers. The data found that IIDs stopped almost 348,000 attempts by drunk drivers in 2018 alone.

LifeSaver, a provider of interlock devices and services, says on its website that false positives are possible, triggered by anything from mouthwash to fruit juice to pizza dough. In that case, a series of lockout periods are triggered before the driver can take another test, anywhere from five minutes on up, depending on the laws of the state. If a rolling sample triggers a failure, the vehicle must be stopped as soon as it's possible to pull over safely, and a failure on a subsequent test after a lockout period puts the vehicle in a service mode, where it must be taken to a service center to be reset. It's unclear if the laws for federally mandated built-in devices would use similar procedures.

The RIDE Act bill does state that the technology will automatically use the blood alcohol content (BAC) cutoff for the jurisdiction where the vehicle is being operated. However, the bill does not specify if the development team is working with existing technology or what form the implementation will take.

Who Will Pay the Costs?

Generally, when drivers are required to install an aftermarket IID after a DUI, they pay the costs for installation, monthly fees for the court-mandated monitoring period, and the removal fee at the end of their sentence. These costs can easily add up to thousands of dollars, which is not necessarily representative of the cost of the IID device itself.

Since there are different suppliers of these IID devices in different areas, prices can vary and furthermore, the monthly fee also includes a monitoring service that records the results of each test to report back to the court, if necessary. LifeSaver, says their pricing is bound by the laws of the states in which they provide their services.

It's unclear how (or if) the cost of these devices would be passed on to consumers if they become mandated as part of car equipment, though the text of Sen. Udall and Scott's proposal specifies that federal funding will help pay for development costs. (The federal government has already dedicated about $50,000,000 to the project.)

"Some in the industry raised cost as an objection to other landmark safety requirements like seatbelts, airbags and backup cameras, but Senator Udall believes that years of federally-funded research have prepared this technology to be integrated into mass commercialization in the coming years," Adriance says. "While the cost projections are still developing, Senator Udall believes that widespread deployment in new cars can be done in an affordable way."

For now, the proposed legislation is focused on providing resources for development, with details on implementation to follow.

"At the moment, the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) Program, which is partially funded by the NHTSA, has developed technology that can detect alcohol in the driver's breath that they are testing in Virginia and Maryland," Adriance says. "Engineers are also developing devices to detect the blood alcohol level of the driver using touch sensors. Volvo has announced that it will be installing cameras in cars to detect if a driver is drunk or distracted, and Senator Udall hopes that the spirit of this completely voluntary initiative demonstrated by Volvo will set the standard for automakers selling cars in the United States."

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