Tech could dramatically reduce and even eliminate drunk driving

Far too many families in Silver Spring and the surrounding communities know the pain a drunk driving accident can create. Despite generations of warnings in public service messages by politicians, celebrities and families of victims, intoxicated drivers continue to get behind the wheel and cause motor vehicle crashes that result in severe injuries or deaths.

Drunk drivers have caused about one-third of traffic fatalities each year over the past decade. Even though law enforcement agencies across the nation arrest about a million people annually for drunk driving, the problem persists.

Could new tech end drunk driving for good?

Technology might be able to finally solve this painful societal problem once and for all. A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says that if alcohol detection systems were required equipment in new vehicles, it would save thousands of lives each year and eventually end drunk driving.

The technology works in much the same way existing ignition interlock devices function. The driver’s body alcohol content (BAC) is measured, and if the alcohol level exceeds what’s legally allowed, the vehicle cannot be started.

Charles Farmer, the IIHS’s vice president of research and the study’s author says, “We haven’t made much progress in the fight against drunk driving since the mid-1990s,” adding that alcohol-detecting tech “is something that could put a real dent in the alcohol-impaired driving problem.”

Automakers and the federal government are already at work on joint development of passive alcohol-detection systems, including a system that would sample the vehicle cabin’s air to determine BAC, as well as a sensor within the steering wheel that would detect the driver’s BAC through skin contact.

The IIHS study analyzed accident data from 2015 to 2018 and determined that about 25% of crash fatalities could have been prevented if the alcohol levels of the most impaired drivers had been below Maryland’s legal threshold of .08.

Quickest path to significant reductions

The report added that the quickest way to achieve significant reductions in the toll drunk driving takes on the nation would be for the federal government to mandate alcohol-detection systems in all new vehicles.

A related bill recently cleared a major legislative hurdle in Washington D.C. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure that would direct the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to create such a mandate within five years. Though most observers believe the measure won’t make it through the Senate, it has at least made it over its first hurdle.

Adding up the lives spared

The IIHS study estimates that if such a mandate was created, it would reduce the drunk driving death toll by between 1,000 and 1,300 lives each year within three years of enforcing the mandate. Within six years, up to 2,600 lives would be spared annually, and by the end of its first 12 years, up to 5,900 lives would be saved each year.