Every day, 30 individuals die in drunk driving-related accidents in the United States alone. That is equivalent to one individual every 48 minutes. However, straightforward technology exists to prevent and possibly eliminate drunk driving. Why then are automakers not required to implement it?
By 2024, new legislation in the United States will mandate that all new vehicles be equipped with alcohol detection systems. The Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone Act of 2019 (RIDE Act) was introduced to Congress by Senators Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Rick Scott (R-Florida), who co-sponsored the Senate bill, and Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) in the House. Legislators estimate that the law could save 7,000 lives annually.
Ned Adriance, the communications director for Sen. Tom Udall, says via email, “[Sen. Tom] Udall saw the success that ignition interlock technology had in reducing the number of alcohol-related driving fatalities in New Mexico and sees alcohol detection technology as a big part of the solution in preventing drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.”
The Ride Act of 2019
The Ride Act does not simply mandate that automakers implement alcohol detection technology. In addition, the bill includes funding for the research and development of “advanced alcohol detection software.” According to a press release, the legislation will establish a pilot program for fleet vehicles equipped with the software, including those from federal, state, and private partners. This indicates that the technology will be evaluated on vehicles prior to being mandated for consumers.
Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is collaborating with automakers to develop alcohol detection systems that can be installed in vehicles. The NHTSA will collaborate with the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and directly with vehicle manufacturers, suppliers, and other interested parties, including higher education institutions with expertise in automotive engineering, to develop the technology.
Once the pilot program has begun, the results will be evaluated in the first 12 months and then every 180 days thereafter. The federally mandated technology will be installed in all new vehicles within two years of the law’s enactment at the latest.
How the DUI Technology Works
How will it actually operate? Current technology can provide some insight, although it does not inherently predict the future. An ignition interlock device (IID) is a Breathalyzer connected to a vehicle’s ignition. Once implanted, the car will not start until someone breathes alcohol-free air into the IID. Additionally, drivers cannot detach the devices without causing damage to the vehicle.
It is possible for a driver to fool these devices by having someone else provide the breath sample; however, the devices also require “rolling samples” at regular intervals while the vehicle is in motion, making it difficult for anyone other than the driver to comply.
And statistics indicate that they are effective. In May 2019, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) reported that since 2006, in-car Breathalyzers have prevented more than 3 million drunk drivers from beginning their vehicles. MADD began advocating for ignition interlocks for all inebriated drivers at that time. MADD collected its data from eleven manufacturers of ignition interlocks. In 2018, IIDs prevented nearly 348 thousand intoxicated driving attempts, according to the data.
LifeSaver, a provider of interlock devices and services, states on its website that it is possible for erroneous positives to be triggered by anything from mouthwash to fruit juice to pizza dough. Before the driver is permitted to retake the test, a series of lockout periods, ranging from five minutes to several hours, are activated, depending on state law. If a rolling sample fails, the vehicle must be stopped as soon as it is safe to do so. If a subsequent test fails after a lockout period, the vehicle must be taken to a service center to be reset. It is unknown whether federally mandated built-in devices would follow the same procedures.
The RIDE Act measure specifies that the technology will automatically utilize the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) threshold for the jurisdiction in which the vehicle is being operated. The measure does not specify whether the development team is utilizing existing technology or how the implementation will be carried out.
Who Will Pay the Costs?
When drivers are required to install an aftermarket IID due to a DUI conviction, they typically pay the installation fee, monthly fees for the court-mandated monitoring period, and removal charge at the conclusion of their sentence. These costs can easily mount up to thousands of dollars, which does not necessarily reflect the price of the IID device.
As there are various providers of these IID devices in different regions, prices can vary, and the monthly fee also includes a monitoring service that records the results of each test for possible court reporting. According to LifeSaver, their pricing is governed by the laws of the jurisdictions in which they operate.
Although the text of Sens. Udall and Scott’s proposal specifies that federal funding will help pay for development costs, it is uncertain how (or if) the cost of these devices would be passed on to consumers if they become required as vehicle equipment. (The federal government has already committed approximately $50 million to the initiative.)
Senator Udall believes that years of federally-funded research have paved the way for this technology to be incorporated into widespread commercialization within the next few years. While cost estimates are still being developed, Senator Udall believes that widespread deployment in new vehicles can be accomplished affordably.
The proposed legislation is currently focused on providing resources for development, with implementation details to follow.
Adriance explains, “Currently, the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) Program, which is partially funded by the NHTSA, has developed technology that can detect alcohol on a driver’s breath, which is being tested in Virginia and Maryland.” “Using touch sensors, engineers are also developing instruments to detect the driver’s blood alcohol level. Volvo has announced that it will install cameras in cars to detect whether a driver is intoxicated or distracted, and Senator Udall hopes that the spirit of this completely voluntary initiative by Volvo will serve as a benchmark for manufacturers selling vehicles in the United States.”