NHTSA unveils prototype car to bar drunken driving

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unveiled a first-ever prototype vehicle with an advanced alcohol detection technology that could ultimately prevent vehicles from being operated by a drunken driver.

At an event in front of hundreds of members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving at the agency's headquarters, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind showed off the technology that has been under development since 2008.

Under the partnership, NHTSA is working with automakers including Detroit's Big Three automakers to develop a Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety — known as "DADSS" — a noninvasive system aimed at detecting when a driver is above the legal alcohol limit.

"There is still a great deal of work to do, but support from Congress and the industry has helped us achieve key research and development milestones," Rosekind said. "DADSS has enormous potential to prevent drunk driving in specific populations such as teen drivers and commercial fleets, and making it an option available to vehicle owners would provide a powerful new tool in the battle against drunk driving deaths."

Rosekind said the agency has no plans to begin a process to mandate the devices on all vehicles. He said he hopes the technology could be tested in a few years — in a commercial or government fleet to start, he said. He thinks once it is proven that parents and others will embrace it.

People will think, Rosekind said, "how did we ever drive without it." The system needs to be instantaneous and foolproof for the public to accept it. "No one is going tolerate anything less than that."

The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association representing over 8,000 restaurants, opposes the DADSS program. They also strongly opposed efforts by the National Transportation Safety Board -- unsuccessful so far — to convince states to lower the maximum blood alcohol level from .08 to .05.

The group argues that since alcohol isn't immediately absorbed into the blood stream — and a person's BAC can rise while driving — it means the DADDS system would be set below .08.

"'Voluntary' passive alcohol sensors like DADSS will do nothing to keep these dangerous drivers off our roads. Instead, DADSS will simply stop many responsible social drinkers who have a glass of wine with dinner from starting their cars," ABI Managing Director Sarah Longwell said.

Unlike an ignition interlock system used by some convicted drunken drivers, this system would not require drivers to blow into a device but would sample the air in the cabin. The project's objective is to complete research within the next five years to allow for the introduction of the technology into the vehicle fleet.

NHTSA showed off a research vehicle that incorporates two different approaches to measuring blood-alcohol content — touch-based and breath-based — that will be tested in a pilot field trial. Automakers say research on the project could take another five to eight years "but commercialization could come at any time," said Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety chief Rob Strassburger, who heads an automaker working group on the issue.

Automakers want to make sure the technology is completely reliable — and wouldn't prevent a sober driver from starting a vehicle. The technology could even be set to bar a teen driver from starting a vehicle with any alcohol in their system.

Congress is considering legislation to extend federal funding for the research project. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said the program has "amazing promise" and could be a safety advance on par with airbags and seat belts that could help "eradicate drunk driving."

Currently, 25 states require alcohol ignition interlock devices for first-time drunk driving offenders. Deputy Transportation Secretary Victor Mendez said as recently as a few years ago the technology was a "pipe dream" but after research it is closer to a reality.

In 2013, NHTSA said it had reached a deal with 15 major automakers to continue researching the effort. Research using laboratory-scale prototype detection devices has been underway for several years.

The 2013 deal extended the agreement with automakers to continue working on it for another five years.

The program was authorized by Congress in 2012. During the first year of the extended agreement, NHTSA and automakers contributed a combined $6.5 million to help advance long-term research.

In 2012, deaths in crashes involving alcohol increased 4.6 percent to 10,322 deaths — the first increase in six years — and above the overall 3.3 percent increase in road deaths in 2012. The number fell slightly to 10,076 in 2013, including 6,500 drivers who were legally intoxicated.

The number has fallen sharply over the last decade — down from 13,000 in 2007 — and the alcohol related fatality death rate has fallen by about 25 percent since then.