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Status Report, Vol. 46, No. 10 | November 17, 2011 Subscribe

Alcohol-detection device project is now in development phase

Developers of advanced in-vehicle alcohol detection technology have two years to come up with a system that can reliably determine the amount of alcohol in a driver's bloodstream in a third of a second.

That's the task in the second phase of a joint government-industry effort to develop a highly accurate and unobtrusive technology that would prevent anybody with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher from starting a vehicle. Two contracts have been awarded to develop systems for a test vehicle.

Devices to keep an impaired driver from starting a vehicle are in use in many states, but these ignition interlocks are designed for people who already have been convicted of driving under the influence. They require a driver to blow into the device and take at least 30 seconds to compute the person's BAC from the breath sample.

In contrast, the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) program is seeking a system that would be quick and virtually invisible, able to accurately measure BAC without inconveniencing sober drivers on every trip. It would need to work consistently in all conditions and without maintenance (see "Interlock laws now cover more DUI offenders," July 11, 2009).

"Our performance specifications far exceed what already exists," says DADSS program manager Susan Ferguson.

Despite great strides in reducing impaired-driving deaths over the past 30 years, little progress has been made since the mid-1990s. Institute researchers estimate that more than 7,000 deaths could have been prevented in 2009 if all drivers with BACs of 0.08 percent or higher were kept off the roads.

The DADSS initiative is a partnership of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, a consortium of automakers. The Institute is part of an expert advisory panel.

In the first phase of the project, prototypes of a breath-based system and a touch-based system were developed and tested, including with human subjects. The developers are expected to improve the speed and precision of their systems in the second phase. The systems will be tested to ensure they are durable enough to install in a vehicle. That means they must be able to withstand wide variation in temperature, vibration, humidity, dust, and electromagnetic radiation, among other things.

Both systems will then be installed in a single test vehicle. The project is funded up to that point, but more vehicles and field testing likely would be necessary before either system makes its way into vehicles on a dealer lot.

The breath-based system is being developed by Autoliv, a Swedish maker of automotive safety systems. It uses multiple sensors to measure the alcohol content of the driver's exhaled breath inside the vehicle. The position of the sensors ensures the reading reflects the breath of the driver and not passengers.

The touch-based device is being developed by Takata, a Japanese supplier of auto safety systems, and TruTouch Technologies, a New Mexico company that makes alcohol detection systems for the workplace. The system uses tissue spectroscopy to estimate a person's BAC based on infrared light absorption by the skin.

A 2009 Institute survey showed the public is ready for this kind of in-vehicle alcohol-detection technology. About two-thirds of respondents said they think it is a good idea, and more than 40 percent said they would want it in their own vehicles (see "Alcohol detection devices for all drivers garner widespread support," Sept. 17, 2009). A more detailed survey to gauge how people would respond to the specific technologies is planned as part of DADSS.

Any system to emerge from the project and be adopted by vehicle manufacturers would likely be offered initially as optional equipment. Ferguson notes that some consumers, such as parents of teenagers and employers of commercial drivers, could be expected to embrace it quickly.

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