In almost every industry and field, technology continues to disrupt old systems and open up new pathways for advancement. None more so than in the field of law enforcement, where researchers, inventors and tech geniuses are working on more advanced tools not only to enforce DUI, but also to prevent it. Perhaps the most promising of these initiatives is the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), a federally funded research program developing a technology that will automatically prevent an intoxicated driver from operating a motor vehicle.
How the Technology Will Work
Intoxication occurs because our bodies are unable to metabolize alcohol at the rate at which we drink it. As a result, most of the alcohol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the walls of the stomach and intestines. This blood alcohol content (BAC) can actually be measured by the amount of alcohol on our breath, and even through the membranes of our skin.
The devices currently in development through DADSS take blood alcohol detection to the next level by measuring a person’s BAC seamlessly and in the background, rather than by purposeful testing. When installed in a motor vehicle, the device will be able to detect when a prospective driver’s BAC exceeds the legal limit and will automatically disable the ignition so the vehicle won’t start.
DADSS is currently exploring two possible types of BAC detection systems for motor vehicles, both of which show significant promise.
Operating under a similar principle as the breathalyzer, a breath-based device would analyze the driver’s breath as he enters the vehicle, measuring both alcohol and carbon dioxide molecules to determine the dilution of alcohol. If the BAC from the driver’s breath exceeds 0.08 (the legal limit of intoxication in most states), the ignition lock engages.
Another technology being explored would measure BAC through the skin. The detectors would be installed in a surface the driver naturally touches, such as an ignition button. The sensor would use infrared light to detect the presence of alcohol in the capillaries of the driver’s finger and deliver results in less than a second. If the BAC is too high, the car simply won’t start.
How Is This Technology Different from Ignition Interlock?
Of course, BAC detection technology already exists in the form of ignition interlock devices. In fact, California law already empowers judges to require some convicted DUI offenders to have ignition interlocks installed in their cars. How is the DADSS technology different, or what makes it better? Effectively, the new technology improves on ignition interlock in two key ways:
1. Ignition interlock is active, while DADSS technology is passive.
The interlock devices of today include a built-in breathalyzer that the driver must actively use before starting up the vehicle. It is intrusive—some might say even humiliating. Conversely, DADSS technology would operate in the background, naturally detecting BAC levels without the driver having to activate anything.
2. Ignition interlock is punitive; DADSS is preventive.
Owing to their intrusive nature, ignition interlocks still function as a penalty device. In other words, a driver already has to have driven DUI before the interlock is installed. It can prevent future DUIs, but not the initial offense. (Not to mention it doesn’t stop an intoxicated driver from driving someone else’s car that doesn’t have the device installed.)
By contrast, DADSS developers hope their devices will eventually come standard in all newly manufactured vehicles, effectively making those vehicles DUI-proof for any intoxicated driver who attempts to get behind the wheel. In this way, DADSS could prevent even a first DUI—not just a second or third one.
While we have reason to be excited about the progress, DADSS technology still has a long road to travel before it’s ready for market. According to CNET, the new technology still faces a number of hurdles on various fronts. What are some of these hurdles?
Developers and researchers must address the many variables that could possibly cause a detection device to produce a false reading or misinterpret other data, allowing an impaired driver to start the car. For the device to work effectively, it must be able to accommodate the various ways alcohol affects different body types and ethnicities, as well as be able to detect subtle changes in BAC caused by “last call” gulps and last-minute snacking.
Despite a general public consensus that driving under the influence is a threat to public safety, there are still special interest groups that may resist these preventative efforts using the argument that they are intrusive. For example, the American Beverage Institute (the bar and restaurant industry lobby), has already opposed the ignition interlock requirement for first-time DUI offenders unless their BAC is over 0.15. Any attempt to increase detection standards would likely face opposition from such lobbies because they could be seen as a deterrent to drinking in general, hurting the liquor industry’s bottom line.
While few people would dispute that getting behind the wheel when intoxicated is unethical in itself, the idea of equipping all vehicles with BAC detection capabilities raises a whole other set of ethical questions—most notably about where to set the benchmark. Setting the device with a zero-tolerance threshold (0.01 BAC) could dissuade millions of people from drinking and jeopardize many jobs in the restaurant/bar industry. On the other hand, setting the threshold any higher could be interpreted as giving people passive permission to drink and drive as long as they don’t exceed those limits. (The fact that some states are already considering lowering the BAC legal limit makes this question even more pertinent.)
Then there is the greater question of how much control we reasonably exert over one another as humans. As distasteful as we may find it that someone would drive intoxicated (and legal limits aside), does it cross an ethical line to remove someone else’s ability to determine for themselves how much is “too much?” By designing our cars to effectively “refuse service” to someone based on their breath, could we be jeopardizing other freedoms in the name of public safety?
Of course, these questions arise almost every time a new regulation or protection is enforced—some may even remember a similar debate over making seatbelts a legal requirement—so as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety draws closer to releasing its technology, it will no doubt spark some interesting conversations. If the developers have their way, however, these advancements could make the roadways much safer overall. In time, DUI could even become a thing of the past.