Few things are more deadly than drunk driving, but it’s very difficult to prevent people from getting behind the wheel if they’re not willing to police themselves.
One possible solution is DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety), a cooperative research project by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and ACTS, the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety. The DADSS program is intended to research, develop and demonstrate non-invasive methods that quickly measure the driver’s BAC, or blood alcohol concentration, each time the driver gets in. If the BAC is too high, the car won’t start.
Unlike an ignition interlock, which requires the driver to blow into a breathalyzer and is often mandated by the courts for convicted drunk drivers, the DADSS system must work invisibly. Currently, researchers are looking at tissue spectrometry, which would estimate alcohol via the driver’s skin when the vehicle’s starter button is pushed, and at distant spectrometry, which would measure exhaled breath.
“There are tremendous challenges and most have to do with how complex a vehicle is itself,” says Wade Newton, director of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which works with ACTS. “It’s 3,000 parts working together in all temperature conditions, whether filled with passengers or empty, or maybe not maintained. The device and technology must work all the time.”
Such technology, should it become feasible, could potentially be added to all new vehicles. For that reason, it must be invisible to the operator, Newton says. “It can’t inconvenience the sober driver,” he says. “We need to be confident that it’s not going to prevent a sober driver from operating the vehicle. A huge percentage doesn’t drink, but they’re affected by drunk drivers.”
The research teams have a lot of work ahead. The device must prevent the car from being started at precisely the legal limit of .08 BAC, “and they could be .0799 when they start and a few minutes later they cross over, and how do you handle that?” Newton says. “That’s one of the as-yet unanswered questions.”
The breath-based system must be able to pinpoint the driver and not an intoxicated passenger. “Successful technology will be able to tell where the breath is, how warm it is, where it’s coming from. It wouldn’t just be ambient in the vehicle,” Newton says.
Overcoming such complexity takes time, and researchers are hoping to demonstrate the technology in a research vehicle by 2013.