Should In-Car Alcohol Sensors Be Used To Prevent Drunk Driving?

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Two years ago we ran a post about in-car alcohol detection systems, a technology that will enable a vehicle to detect when a driver is intoxicated.

New technologies could make DUI checkpoints a thing of the past

New technologies could make DUI checkpoints a thing of the past

At that time, we asked the question Should in-car alcohol detection systems be mandatory?, and the response from our readers seemed to focus on three separate positions:

  1. Those who were strongly in favor of this type of automotive technology, arguing that safety is paramount.
  2. Those focused on the privacy issues surrounding alcohol detection systems, complaining that the idea was not only too intrusive into their personal lives but also in contravention of already-existing laws governing personal property and conduct.
  3. Those who believe the technology is too flawed for it to ever make its way to dealer showrooms.

While all of these points have their merits, the last point about technological limitations is really the most critical. Until a workable technology can be found, weighing the merits of a mandatory drunk-driving prevention system is academic. However, it seems that the technical challenges are closer than ever to being solved.

In-Car Alcohol Detection Technologies

Most of the technology and research into in-car alcohol detection falls into four categories:

  1. Sniffers – “Sniffing” the air in areas near the driver’s face – above the driver in the headliner, on the steering wheel, etc. – may be a good way to determine if a driver is drunk.
  2. Skin sensors – Surfaces that are touched by the driver can include special sensors that detect alcohol on or in the driver’s skin. Some of these sensors are now highly accurate.
  3. Driving pattern recognition – Drunk drivers tend to have slow reaction times, meandering steering control, and uneven brake and acceleration responses. A vehicle’s computer can be tuned to detect this erratic behavior.
  4. Facial recognition – Using a camera locked on to the driver’s face, the vehicle can monitor if their eyes are open, how their eyes track with steering inputs, etc., to determine if a driver is drunk.

Obviously, each of these technologies has flaws. Some skin sensors can’t determine between alcohol from a beer or alcohol from hand sanitizer. Sniffers can’t tell if a driver is drunk or if the vehicle is filled with drunk passengers. Driving pattern and facial recognition technology are difficult to calibrate and not necessarily indicative of alcohol.

However, if these technologies continue to improve – and if a vehicle uses all of these tools together – the chances of a false-positive are greatly reduced. It’s estimated that by 2013, there will be a workable in-car alcohol detection system prototype that is nearly fool-proof.

What Do You Do With A Drunken Driver?

Let’s assume for a moment that the in-car alcohol detection systems work as advertised. There are still a lot of unanswered questions:

  • How should a vehicle respond when it believes the driver is drunk? Obviously, if the vehicle can prevent a drunk person for starting their vehicle, that would be the best course of action…but what if a person drinks as they drive down the road?
  • When a driver becomes inebriated, does the car automatically shut-off at the next stoplight? Should police be contacted electronically?
  • Should drunk driving data be recorded in a vehicle’s computer? If so, for how long? If a person drove drunk 3 years ago, and that data is still in their vehicle’s memory, what are their rights?
  • What if a person gets into an accident and one of their in-car alcohol detection system’s sensors registers a false-positive? Could that record be used against that person, even if the reading was likely in error?
  • Could an insurance company access a vehicle’s computer to determine if and/or when a driver may have been drunk? Could insurance costs or accident liability be determined as a result?

These are all reasonable concerns, and many of them fall into the realm of privacy. While it’s true that there’s no “right to privacy” when a drunk driver is sharing the same road with members of the public, what about some of the gray areas regarding when and how this data is used?

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 64% of Americans support the installation of this type of technology in modern automobiles in order to prevent future drunk driving tragedies.  Here at Tundra Headquarters, we would like to re-sample our readers and see how you feel about in-car alcohol detection systems:

Filed Under: Auto News


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  1. rich says:

    Why stop there…let’s hook up speed detectors or better yet any moving violation detector. Also, we need to put cameras in everyones house so local, state or federal goverment can determine if you are breaking any laws. There are a lot of folks that feel the seat belt law violates their rights. In Illinois we have an I-Pass transmitter for the tollways. This system allows drivers to utilize the fast lanes instead of having to stop at the tollbooths. State politicians wanted to use the system to calculate the time it took drivers to travel from one toll booth to the next. The calculation would reflect if the driver was speeding. The driver would then receive a speeding ticket via mail. They claimed it would deter speeders and save lives. Lol, everyone knew it was about ticket revenues. I don’t drink but I do fell that alcohol sensors can open the doors for other devices that will violate your rights.

  2. Beezwax says:

    I’ll bite at this one!

    i think it’s a good idea. my brother was involved in a major car accident 14 years ago and his back was broken in 3 places. I was involved in a drunk driving accident 6 years ago and the woman who hit me, flipped my car on its side. I have 2 hairline fractured vertebra in my lower back and need knee surgery. now since Texas is full of a bunch of Rebel, Mr.I dont give a FK about the law of DUI… i say this should be in effect. In fact, Volvo has already come out with a technology that can detect a collision and automaticlly applies the brakes, it also see’s things in the blind spot for you and notifies you.

    juss Sayin

  3. greg says:

    How about having some real penalties for these offenses. Lose your license for a year, acouple hours in jail, and a fine. The sad thing is you can get your license reinstated to drive back and forth to work by the judge! Why isn’t it attempted vehicular manslaughter? Why let them off so easy? Throw them in jail for acouple years and that will take care of the problem!

    Rich if you don’t like the way things are handled call your repersentive. If that doesn’t vote for a different repersentive. So on and so on. Don’t complain if you don’t do anything to fix it!

  4. Mickey says:

    Greg I agree with your first paragraph. Until it can be 100% right I won’t trust it. Just taking cold medicine can activate the sniffer. Sleepy driving will activate the system of weaving on the road.

  5. rich says:

    Greg I’m not complaining, I was just pointing out that these methods can lead into other things. I totally agree with you about the punishment. The stiffer the penalty the more it will deter the act! Let’s face the facts, if law enforcement sat outside the bars and pulled over the folks as they came out of the parking bar lots, they would hook a large percentage of folks that drink. But that just doesn’t happen cause lobbyist and tax revenues play a big roll. Also forcing everyone to pay for these devices isn’t right, because we know the mfgs and the govt isnt going to foot the bill.

  6. danny says:

    Well this is a big ole’ can of worms aint it. I happen to agree with Greg. If the current laws were inforced and real punishments were handed out, then alot of the world problems would cease to exist. Now, there are extremes to everything also. For instance, would you throw a child in jail for stealing a 5 cent piece of gum, i hope not, but some kind of real punishment should happen. But we have to also ask ourselves other questions too. Like, how can someone shoot at a police officer and be arrested for aggrivated assault instead of attempted murder?
    Besides, American know-how will teach it self how to deactivate this lil’ device. Furthermore, i can see lawsuits because someone was driving drunk and they’ll say, “well the car let me drive so it’s the car’s fault i was driving drunk”.
    Sorry for wandering off the original subject.

  7. danny says:

    Furthermore, being the father of a teenager, i’d like to see this in his car, but i also see Rich’s thoughts about “big Brother” watching.

  8. Rick says:

    We have become a society of computer controls and Robotic workers. Big Brother is watching. In less than a decade from now lap top computers will have the same computational capacity as a human brain. The car will lock the doors and deliver you to the police station because of the after shave you put on this morning. If we allow a handful of individuals to continue to impose their righteous beliefs on the rest of us then we deserve what we get. Each and every one of us has to take responsibility for our action, teach our youth how to be responsible when consuming alcohol. Teach them respect for a two ton vehicle. Rather than lobby for another invasive means to subjugate our privacy. We need to wake up and stop the Moral Majority from taking away our privacy. The next thing will be a bed that calls the Vatican when a condom is used.

  9. Jason says:

    rich – I think that’s the million-dollar question. Safety vs. individual rights crosses a lot of ground, largely because safety systems can be co-opted to induce a specific behavior.

    Beez – Personal experience goes a long way on this one. I can’t argue with your experience – if this system existed (and assuming it was accurate), there’s a good chance one or both of you would have never been hurt.

    greg – I have to say I agree with you. I know of a couple of people who have multiple offenses yet still somehow have a license…and a drinking problem. I would suggest that part of the problem is repeat offenders. Some of the data I found when I was editing this article shows that a lot of the people who have DUI arrests are multiple offenders…those people need punishment for sure, but they also need counseling. Drinking is a hard thing to stop (based on my own experience of course). In any case, great point.

    Mickey – It would have to be 100% correct to become mandatory, but we might see some court-ordered systems installed that are less than 100% successful.

    rich – Good point about waiting in bar parking lots. That would deter the problem quite a bit.

    danny – A lawsuit seems all but assured, sadly. I could see that as being a major reason that automakers are reluctant to install these systems without a government mandate.

    Rick – That’s a great one-liner. I think that responsibility is ultimately the issue, but there’s a practical side of me that says a) there are always going to be irresponsible people and b) what if this system could eliminate the problem?

    Obviously, there’s no right answer. A compelling case can be made for both sides. Having said that, public opinion seems to be stacked against this type of system pretty heavily. It will be interesting to see what more people have to say – keep the comments rolling!

  10. Mickey says:

    For once we all agree. Man what a feeling…..

  11. danny says:

    To think that this motley crew actually agreed is unfathomable!

  12. Jason says:

    LOL – I hear that.

  13. rich says:

    Some of you people seem to be confusing freedom with your suppossed right to endanger not only your own but the publics safety as well.Unfortunately the laws are not working because people who get dui’s come from all walks of life meaning a very large percentage of the public is still drinking and driving, just because not all get caught doesn’t mean theyre not out there.These devices will prevent accidents and most importantly save lives anyone who wants to argue about theyre freedom being infringed by this obviously doesn’t want to be inconveninced by having to call a cab or a spouse so they can get home from theyre favorite watering hole.Lastly the simple fact of the matter is this, “driving a car is a privilage” meaning no mater how much of a necessity it is in your life it can be taken away or the government can put any nw safety rules they want upon that privilage they see fit.

  14. Jason says:

    rich – I think you make a valid point, and assuming that this system is inexpensive, unobtrusive, and accurate, it would be very hard for anyone to argue that it wasn’t a smart safety feature.

    Your point that driving is a privilege is well taken too – expectations of privacy while using a public road are unfair.

    Having said all of this, there’s no denying that the majority of the public is against this policy. It may be that some of these people are afraid of getting in trouble, but based on the comments here I think it’s fair to say many people are worried about the implications of mandating this type of device. While these fears may not be on solid legal ground, they seem rational to me too.

    Thanks for commenting.

  15. Larry says:

    Auto manufacturers or dealers should have an option for buyers to have this device installed. Also all drivers should have the option to have an interlock system installed. Should it be mandatory? NO

  16. Jason says:

    Larry – I think that’s precisely what will happen at some point…if insurance companies are willing to offer consumers a discount for installing this equipment, a lot of people will pay for the feature. As more people pay for it, more drunk driving is prevented, the discounts get bigger, more people install it, discounts get bigger still, etc., until we’re finally left with the following: If you don’t get this feature, your insurance rates are quite a bit higher than everyone else’s.

    It’s not perfect, but it’s a free market solution…and I’m a fan of free market solutions. I think that, for these reasons, insurance companies should be aggressively funding this research.

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