After a decade of short term fixes, Congress has finally passed, and President Barack Obama has signed into law, a five-year Highway Bill. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that lurking in the more than 1,000 page bill is an allocation of $21 million dollars to accelerate the development of alcohol sensing technology, known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), which proponents hope will soon be mandatory in all new cars.
It doesn’t sound as far-fetched as it used to. The automotive world is teeming with innovations like backup cameras, automated parking, Facebook and Twitter feeds in the dashboard, crash avoidance features (which we need because we’re looking at Facebook on the dashboard screen) and even self-driving cars. Technology that prohibits drunk driving through retinal scans and skin sensors seems like a logical invention to embrace at first glance.
At second glance, however, there’s something disconcerting about a car imposing its will on the driver in this manner. Could the technology potentially save lives? Yes. So too would putting speed capping technology and cellphone blocking technology in cars. Those technologies exist too and yet there is no social momentum for installing them in cars.
That’s because these technologies are different from regular safety features. People generally would rather encourage social responsibility — don’t text and drive, don’t speed dangerously, don’t drive drunk — than have their cars making those decisions for them.
This is especially true when you consider that this new alcohol sensing technology won’t just stop people from driving drunk, it will likely stop people from drinking anything before driving.
Though proponents claim these devices will be set at the current legal limit of .08, basic human physiology dictates otherwise.
It can take a couple of hours for a person to reach peak BAC after she stops drinking. This means that a driver could have three or four drinks in a narrow window of time and still have a BAC below 0.08 when she starts her car. But the driver’s BAC level will be rising fast and could cross the 0.08 legal threshold while she is driving and rise to levels well beyond the legal limit.
Should that driver get into an accident, DADSS manufacturers and car companies could both be held legally liable. To avoid such litigation, the alcohol detection devices will have to be calibrated well below the current legal limit. The previous head of the DADSS program admitted as much in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, saying the technology will be set with a safety margin.
And then there’s the ongoing pressure from advocacy groups like The World Health Organization, The National Transportation Safety Board, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lower the legal limit to .05. While there’s currently little mainstream appetite for re-categorizing moderate social drinkers as drunks (despite virtually no discernible level of impairment), it becomes far less politically cumbersome for those pushing a lower limit when cars, rather than cops, are in a position to impose it.
If a car won’t start because the driver has a BAC of .04 or .05, that means a 120 lb woman won’t be able to have a single drink if she plans on driving home. And even if that woman doesn’t have a drink she could possibly still get stranded. Though this new alcohol sensing technology would meet the highest standards of reliability, it still is estimated to fail at least 3,000 times a day.
The drunk driving problem consists of a small population of hard-core offenders who cause over 70 percent of all alcohol related fatalities. We shouldn’t try to solve that problem by charging taxpayers $21 million to put alcohol sensing technology on the cars of every American.
While it’s commendable Congress finally passed long-term legislation to fund highways, it’s disappointing lawmakers chose to waste taxpayer money with a hefty investment in this intrusive technology.
• Sarah Longwell is the Managing Director of the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association that defends the right to drink moderately and responsibly before driving. Comments: abionline.org