Longwell: Alcohol-sensing tech goes too far
The recent debate in Congress over whether or not and to what degree the Patriot Act should be renewed reminds Americans of the constant balance that must be struck between our safety and our freedom. This fundamental tension is now at the forefront of another debate: How to solve the drunk driving problem?
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has just unveiled new technology supposedly designed to eliminate drunk driving once and for all. Through advanced breath and touch-based sensors that unobtrusively read a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) before the car is started, proponents believe that more than 7,000 lives will be saved every year. NHTSA says these alcohol detection devices could be ready for commercial use in just five years and that the “goal over time is to equip all passenger vehicles in the United States with the technology.”
The merits of technology that won’t let a driver start his car if he’s over the legal limit would appear to be self-evident—after all, no one wants to come fender to fender with a drunk driver. And yet, as with many new policies designed to enhance our safety, there will be tradeoffs.
Foremost, there is the question of where the sensors will be set. The current legal limit is .08 percent in all 50 states and NHTSA now insists that is where the sensors will be calibrated.
But these are deceptive talking points. A few years ago, the head of the development program was happy to admit to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the devices will be set with a safety margin; meaning, lower than .08 percent. The reasons for this are obvious. Imagine a driver starts his car when his BAC is below the limit, but the shot of whisky he took right before jumping in his car is pushing his BAC level quickly beyond the threshold. If he hurts himself or someone else, who is at fault? After all, his car isn’t supposed to let him drive drunk. The legal and liability scenarios are endless.
To avoid such problems, these new sensors will likely be set very low, imposing a kind of de facto prohibition on drivers who will no longer be able to have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer at a ballgame before driving home.
Then there is the issue of reliability. Like a dead battery or a flat tire, there will be times when the technology will fail.
The question then becomes, is it worth it?
Many people will say “yes,” that drunk drivers are a clear and present danger to other motorists and therefore no solution is too inconvenient, limiting, or intrusive. It’s the same rationale used to justify unconstitutional and ineffective sobriety checkpoints.
So how significant is the drunk driving threat that such extreme measures would be taken to solve it? In 2013, the last year for data, nearly 80 percent of all alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities were the drunk drivers killing themselves or their adult passengers.
For those who don’t drive drunk or choose not to get into cars with individuals who’ve had too much, the risk of being involved in a drunk driving fatality is extremely low. In fact, statistics show sober motorists driving during normal hours (not the middle of the night) should be far more concerned about the safety threat posed by drivers who are speeding or distracted by their cell phones.
Illuminated by this data, it would appear that installing mandatory alcohol sensing technology in the car of every driver is a solution disproportionate to the size of the problem. A more prudent approach would be to install the systems in the cars of the hard core drunk drivers who cause the vast majority of alcohol-related fatalities.
Finally there is the concern about what happens to the data that is being collected by these new sensors. Current detection technology used for offenders transmits over-the-limit readings to law enforcement. Would the police get access to this data once the sensors are in every American’s car? Could attempts to drive intoxicated be used against an individual in any number of legal proceedings or license applications?
As the federal government uses our tax dollars to further develop this technology, the question for the American public is one it must answer time and time again: How much of a police state are we willing to tolerate in exchange for more perfect safety?
Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute.