Driver's Seat: Technology offers new restraints on the drunk driver

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The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a recommendation lowering the national standard for drunken driving from a .08 blood-alcohol content to .05. And many have weighed in on the subject, but I was more intrigued by other passages of the report, specifically on new technologies that prevent vehicles from being started by impaired drivers.

The breath monitors that convicted drunken drivers blow into before starting their cars are probably something most people are aware of. But automakers are now looking into ways to monitor drivers' impairment through skin sensors on steering wheels, gearshifts or ignition switches, and passive breath analysis.

Close to home: The subject struck a nerve for me. I have a high school friend who continues struggling to recover from the devastating injuries caused by a drunken driver. The crash happened at 7 a.m. on a Thursday morning last October while she was heading off to her job as a teacher.

Like most high school friends, Janet and I drifted apart after I went off to college. I went to Penn State; she went to East Stroudsburg a year later. We'd lost touch until a few years ago, when the magic of social media reconnected us.

I've watched her recovery from a sort of limbo on the same social media we used to reconnect, as family and friends try to help her rebuild her life. And it's taken a lot of help.

The man who was driving the other car was driving with a license suspension for DUI.

Waking up far from home: I recall another college friend relating a different kind of story to me: In college, she was visiting with friends one night and she had too much to drink. Her friends did what seemed like the right thing, driving her home themselves and putting her to bed.

Unfortunately, the next thing she remembers is waking up behind the wheel of her own car about 5 miles from home, out of gas. She didn't remember leaving the house, the trip to that point, anything. No property was found damaged, no one was hurt or killed, thankfully, and the car appeared fine except for the empty gas tank.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an association of a dozen automakers, has made addressing drunken drivers a priority. Automakers have a $10 million, 5-year cooperative agreement with the NHTSA to research in-vehicle technologies to reduce drunken driving-related fatalities and injuries.

Alliance's communications director Wade Newton directed me to the website for the Driving Alcohol Detection System for Safety (, a project undertaken by the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Research is being conducted on a touch-based approach allowing estimation of alcohol in human tissue.

The companies involved in these technologies hope to have a research vehicle available by the beginning of next year that will demonstrate both of these technologies.

"Assuming that the technology can be commercialized -- that's the point of the research, to determine that it can be -- then we're about eight years away from when this technology will first begin appearing in cars," Mr. Newton said in an email.

Other devices: The NTSB report also mentioned that Volvo offered interlock devices on its vehicles.

Volvo's Adam Kopstein, who manages North American product safety and compliance for Volvo, told me the devices involve a breath test where the driver blows into a tube and different colored lights -- green, yellow or red -- indicate whether it's safe to go, proceed with caution, or stay put. This is much like the devices installed on the vehicles of convicted DUI offenders in the U.S.

But the optional device is only available in parts of Europe. It's especially helpful in places like Sweden, Mr. Kopstein said, where a .02 blood-alcohol level is enough for a DUI conviction.

For me, though, this kind of device has two drawbacks: One, I could have someone else blow into the machine and bypass the system. Two, as Volvo's Mr. Kopstein pointed out, there's the social factor. He said watching the kids' friends' mom blowing into the device before driving the kids off to soccer practice might be a little disconcerting.

But there have been unintended benefits: In Sweden, the devices are very popular in fleet vehicles -- think taxicabs -- and people who have studied the devices suspect drivers who may have early runs and are faced with a breath test in the morning may not stay out as late or drink as heavily the night before. They've seen absenteeism and work tardiness decrease, Mr. Kopstein said.

A better way: Sure, we run the risk of cars shutting down after false readings. Heck, I'm betting that if I'm still writing about cars in 10 years, at some point I'll be growling in a column about a car that wouldn't start because it mistakenly said I was drunk.

But I think it's time that problem became our problem. It seems minor compared with the potential mayhem inflicted by another drunken driver.

I betting my friend Janet would agree.

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Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at


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