The day when your car or truck decides whether you are sober enough to drive may not be as far off as it sounds. ( AW )
A five-year research program, funded in part by automakers, aims to develop devices that would automatically test the sobriety of any driver - not just those convicted of drunken driving. The goal is to have in every vehicle a largely invisible device that would keep it from running if the driver had too much to drink.
"This is a huge challenge," says Sue Ferguson, chairwoman of a committee overseeing the effort. "It is the next frontier" of safety technology, she says. Ferguson, a former senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, now heads her own consulting firm.
This month, the research program launched a Web site, www.dadss.org. DADSS is short for Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety. The site seeks to solicit ideas from technology developers and build public acceptance for the concept of alcohol detectors in all vehicles.
A first step: getting rid of the word "interlock," which has bad connotations. The devices that some convicted drunken drivers must blow into to get their vehicles to operate are called interlocks. A failed effort in the early 1970s aimed to require seat belt interlocks.
The new program's research is sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety. Most automakers belong to the coalition.
In 2006, Mothers Against Drunk Driving challenged government and industry to find a technological remedy for drunken driving. NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason says the effort is a priority for her agency.
Last year, Nissan Motor Co. displayed a concept vehicle equipped with early versions of devices that one day may be widely used. They include a sensor in the shift lever that measures alcohol in perspiration, "sniffers" that check cabin air for alcohol in exhaled breath and a camera that monitors eye movements.
About 1.4 million drunken-driving arrests are made each year in the United States. Safety officials say that figure is a small fraction of the 40 million to 50 million annual trips they estimate drunken drivers make.
Equipping vehicles with devices designed to stop drunken driving would save 9,000 lives a year, officials estimate. Of the 42,000 people who die on U.S. highways each year, about 18,000 are in alcohol-related crashes.
Ferguson says the research program aims to develop prototype devices within five years. Although the current plan is based on voluntary rather than mandatory installation of the devices, she says, "Ultimately we would like them on all vehicles."