NMA Reboot: Turning up the Heat with Passive BAC Sensors

Editor’s Note: In-vehicle BAC sensors are one step closer to reality, according to this piece from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the auto industry have been working jointly on the technology for several years and recently unveiled prototypes of two systems that can passively detect driver BAC levels and prevent ignition if they exceed legal levels. These systems are being billed as potential safety options on new cars, much like adaptive cruise control and blind spot detection. But it may only be a matter of time before “optional” becomes “mandatory.” We analyzed the true intent behind these systems, along with the implementation strategy, in this newsletter from 2012

NMA E-Newsletter #187: The Frog in the Pot

BACtrack Keychain Brea... Best Price: $13.45 Buy New $14.62 (as of 07:20 UTC - Details) Buried within the approximately 600 pages of legislation enacted in the recent federal transportation law are two provisions to encourage the installation of ignition interlock devices (IIDs) into more vehicles. (Current interlocks are in-vehicle breathalyzers that prevent the vehicle from starting if the driver tests positive for alcohol. Learn more about the problems with interlocks here.)

The first offers grants to states that implement mandatory interlock requirements for all DUI offenders. The second provides continued funding for the Driver Alcohol Detection System and Safety (DADSS) program.

DADSS is a partnership between NHTSA and the automobile industry to develop “non-invasive in-vehicle alcohol detection technologies that can very quickly and accurately measure a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC).”

BACtrack Mobile Smartp... Buy New $91.65 (as of 06:05 UTC - Details) The effort centers on two possible technologies—one that reads BAC through the driver’s skin and another that uses cabin sensors to measure alcohol concentrations in the driver’s exhaled breath. Note that neither technology operates like current interlock devices, which have been deemed as unreliable, too intrusive and “not acceptable for widespread use among the driving public…”

It’s no secret that the true aim of DADSS is to install interlock devices in all new vehicles. Under this regime, all drivers—not just those with DUI convictions—would have to pass a BAC test every time they wanted to start their car.

Interlock proponents, such as MADD and certain policymakers, downplay their support for mandatory, universal interlock use because of the public backlash it would cause. So, they work toward incremental gains, such as passing more interlock legislation at the state level and funding initiatives like DADSS, which are couched as “research” programs.

Arrest-Proof Yourself Dale Carson Best Price: $8.49 Buy New $10.53 (as of 05:55 UTC - Details) But the efforts of advocates and policymakers may not be enough. According to this recent article (Page 44), the key to universal acceptance (read mandatory in all new vehicles) of interlock devices may lie elsewhere:

While some believe that the universal implementation of alcohol interlocks should be mandated by government, there is an argument that suggests that the paradigm shift towards universal acceptance will be driven by private industry.

The writer explains that as interlocks have become widespread in commercial and fleet vehicles, especially overseas, the companies that have adopted them are perceived by the public as more safety conscious and better corporate citizens. The logic goes that if a taxi passenger in Belgium observes the driver using an interlock before starting the cab, the passenger will feel more secure and have a more positive view of interlocks.

How to Beat The Police... Anonymous Buy New $0.99 (as of 08:35 UTC - Details) The writer concludes that the private sector, not government, can do a better job of changing public perception of interlocks, especially in North America. If consumers become more aware of alcohol testing in commercial driving settings, and the assumed accompanying safety benefits, they will more accepting of interlocks in their personal vehicles and may actually want them.

It’s an interesting point. Private sector companies are masterful at influencing public opinion. It’s called marketing, and the techniques to do it effectively have been honed over 150 years. But even if UPS or Walmart did require interlocks in its fleet vehicles, would the company really want to call attention to that fact? Likely not, for fear of even suggesting that its drivers might drive while impaired.

So, even if the private sector begins to adopt interlock technology on a large scale, the spillover effect on consumers will likely be subtle and incremental (like slowly turning up the heat on a frog in a pot of water). Given the modus operandi of the interlock proponents, they will probably be very content with that.

Ignition interlocks represent a flawed solution to the drunk-driving problem. Nonetheless, their supporters will continue to push for universal acceptance through obvious, and not so obvious, means. Their success is not guaranteed. We encourage you to ask your policymakers to consider alternative, thoughtful approaches to this serious public safety issue.

Reprinted with permission from National Motorists Association.