An anti-alcohol flavor in the highway bill
Detection devices in cars could strand sober drivers
Source: Washington Times
By Richard Berman
December 7, 2015
This holiday season many Americans will take a break from lines at the mall and traffic to enjoy a glass of wine with family and friends. While it’s safe (and legal) for most responsible adults to drive after one or two drinks, there’s a growing resolve by anti-alcohol activists to stop drivers from getting behind the wheel even when their consumption is well below the legal limit.
The anti-alcohol cause got a huge boost from Congress last week. Buried within the 1,300 page bill to reauthorize highway funding is a provision granting more than $21 million to develop an intrusive new device that activists hope will soon be installed in all cars as original equipment. This is in addition to the $100 million already invested in this sketchy technology.
Earlier this year, officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (the agency behind the program) and automakers unveiled a prototype car equipped with these devices, known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). It’s expected that cars of the future will use infrared light to read a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level with the touch of a vehicle’s ignition button or detect BAC levels through a driver’s breath. Mothers Against Drunk Driving wants DADSS standard in all new cars.
It’s highly unlikely these devices will be set at the current legal limit of .08. Because it takes the human body time to process alcohol, an abusive drinker who has several shots of tequila before getting behind the wheel could start his car only to have his BAC rise well above .08 while he drives. If he gets into an accident, car companies and DADSS makers would be sued.
To avoid this liability, these alcohol sensors will be set with a safety margin. No one knows how low, but to put that level in context, a 120-pound woman can reach the .05 BAC level after a single drink. Installing DADSS devices in cars means having anything to drink before getting behind the wheel could leave you stranded in a restaurant or event parking lot unable to start your car.
Don’t drink? DADSS could still prove to be a massive inconvenience.
Even if researchers are able to perfect the technology so that it works at the government target of 99.9997 percent of the time, given the numbers of cars on the road we would still experience malfunctions thousands of times every day. That’s thousands of sober holiday shoppers stranded in mall parking lots – while some heavily intoxicated drivers are allowed to start and drive their cars.
If we’re talking traffic safety, drunken driving is a smaller problem than you remember. With the proliferation of anti-drunk driving advertising campaigns and harsher penalties for abusive drinkers, the number of fatalities caused by drunk drivers to innocent victims has plummeted since the 1980s. Unfortunately, there are still a small number of problem drunk drivers who are at the core of the driving while intoxicated problem. They pose the greatest threat to both themselves and their passengers. The good news is that you would have to drive 1.4 billion miles before being exposed to the statistical chance of being hit by a drunk.
But instead of putting more government resources into getting these dangerous drivers off the roads, activist groups are targeting moderate, social drinkers.
One of those proposals is to lower the legal BAC limit to .05, as recently proposed by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Slashing the legal limit is a distraction if safety on our roadways is the goal. Other behaviors, such as texting while driving, are more dangerous. In fact, studies show drivers using a hands-free cellphone are as impaired as drivers with BAC levels of .08. It’s not surprising that less than 1 percent of all traffic fatalities are caused by drivers with BAC levels between .05 and .08 percent.
While there’s not much national momentum to take the United States from .08 to .05, just one state moving to .05 could affect drivers across the country. Since it’s easy to take vehicles across state lines, once DADSS is installed in all cars, manufacturers will likely have to take into account the lowest U.S. legal limit. And if a state like Utah moves to .05, it could mean the car-starting problem on DADSS devices is moved closer to a de facto prohibition standard.
It’s nice to see members of Congress have a Kumbaya moment and pass the first long-term highway bill in a decade, but it’s ridiculous to waste taxpayer dollars to put alcohol-sensing technology in every vehicle. Anti-drunk driving policy should focus on the hardcore drunk drivers who continue to threaten traffic safety while at the same time doing more to stop the tech-inspired distracted driving issue that is far worse.