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Status Report, Vol. 40, No. 4 | SPECIAL ISSUE: ALCOHOL-IMPAIRED DRIVING | April 2, 2005 Subscribe

Technology might stop impaired driving, but not anytime soon

It isn't in your car or mine. Not yet anyway. It isn't mentioned in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 2004 brochure, "New Strategy to Stop Impaired Driving." But technology is being developed that can accurately and unobtrusively detect whether a would-be driver is impaired. One such technology scans the skin to detect alcohol.

"A lot of technologies are promising a range of benefits from helping drivers find their destinations to alerting them if they drift out of their travel lanes. Among these the most promising ones are those with the potential to stop alcohol-impaired drivers," says Institute president Brian O'Neill. "These can make the biggest difference because impaired driving still is such a big highway safety problem."

Various approaches, same goal

There are several variations of in-vehicle technologies. For example a New Mexico company, Lumidigm, is adapting technology developed to noninvasively measure diabetics' blood glucose levels. The same technology could be applied in vehicles to measure drivers' blood alcohol concentrations (BACs).

The approach employs infrared light to scan the dermis layer of the skin to obtain a BAC and, at the same time, a unique biometric identifier. The BACs measured by the Lumidigm technology are more accurate than those produced by evidentiary breath testing devices.

"This technology could be used to warn people they're too impaired to drive," O'Neill says. "A more effective use would be to link the technology to ignitions so people with high BACs couldn't start their vehicles."

On another front, a miniature sensor developed by Saab, dubbed Alcokey, is being tested in Sweden. This device switches on when a driver presses the key fob to open a vehicle's doors. The driver then blows into a mouthpiece to provide a breath sample, and if Alcokey detects an illegal BAC the engine won't start.

"Devices like Alcokey and Lumidigm's overcome a lot of the problems associated with the aftermarket alcohol interlocks that are used in the cars of some drivers who have been convicted of DWI offenses," O'Neill explains. "The new technologies are quick and easy to use."

The aftermarket products have been used with some success to keep convicted DWI offenders from repeating their violations. An Institute-sponsored evaluation of an interlock program in Maryland found it reduced the risk of repeat DWI violations by 64 percent during the first year (see "Ignition interlocks reduce rearrest rates of alcohol offenders," Jan. 15, 2000).

Idea isn't new

The first in-vehicle alcohol detector was the "phystester," developed by General Motors in the 1960s. It presented random digits, which a driver then would attempt to recall by pushing buttons on a control pad. Failure to do so would keep the engine from starting. However, this device wasn't practical because the performances of drivers varied considerably, and there were too many false positive and negative results.

Ignition interlocks have to be accepted by the motoring public. This was the lesson in the 1970s when interlocks briefly were mandated to keep drivers who hadn't buckled up from starting their vehicles. Public outcry against this federal regulation led to its quick reversal (see "Ignition interlock: Ford's better idea," Sept. 9, 1974).

The unobtrusiveness of the new alcohol interlock technologies might promote their acceptability among more drivers. In particular, the device being developed by Lumidigm is completely noninvasive. "Such technologies are years away from widespread application, but one day they could be suitable for use in all vehicles, not just those of people who have been convicted of DWI offenses. It's a promising approach we need to pursue," O'Neill concludes.

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