Big brother in the backseat

By: Sarah Longwell
The Hill
August 31, 2010

It's classic bait and switch. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) claims that his ROADS SAFE Act—which authorizes a $60 million taxpayer investment in a government program to further develop sophisticated in-vehicle technology that would keep a car from starting if the driver’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level was above a pre-set limit—is all about stopping drunk drivers. This sounds like an excellent idea. After all, who doesn’t want to get dangerous drunk drivers off the road? That’s the bait. Here’s the switch: This taxpayer-funded federal program, known as DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety), is actually developing alcohol detection technology to come as standard equipment in all cars.

It would be hard for Senator Udall to suggest that he isn’t aware of the real objective of the DADSS program. Just last week a document was released by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation in which former Mothers Against Drunk Driving CEO Chuck Hurley says, quite plainly, that DADSS is working to “develop new and advanced technology for use in all vehicles.” He continued by saying, “the goal is to develop a system that can be utilized in all vehicles.”

Five states – including Sen. Udall’s own New Mexico – have already considered legislation that would require so-called “ignition interlock devices” to be installed in all cars. But, the ROADS SAFE Act would pour $60 million dollars into developing a new generation of in-car alcohol detectors. The technology is still a few years from market, but one possibility is that sensors embedded in the steering wheel would analyze the skin of your hands for traces of alcohol. Another is sniffers on your seat or gear shift to detect alcohol in the car’s cabin. If a certain level of alcohol is detected, the car would not start.

But who decides what “too much” means? Today, the federal BAC limit is .08 percent. This leaves most Americans free to have a glass of wine with dinner before driving home. Unfortunately for responsible drinkers, this is not the limit these devices will be set at.

For a variety of technical and legal reasons, if these devices are installed in every car they will unavoidably be set below the legal limit. You have to take into account the reality of human physiology. Blood alcohol levels continue to rise after a person has stopped drinking, so it is easy to imagine a scenario where a person is able to start their car with a BAC level of .06 percent, and then in the course of driving have that BAC level cross the .08 threshold. What happens then? Are the police alerted by your car? Will the manufacturer be on the hook if the driver gets into an accident? Manufacturers will avoid this scenario by setting alcohol detectors at levels as low as .02 and .03.

In fact, the head the DADSS program admitted as much in a 2009 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel when she stated that the devices would be set with a safety margin because “it’s better to erroneously stop an innocent than allow a drunk to drive.”

Drunk driving is a serious problem, and it deserves serious solutions but putting alcohol detection devices in every car is an overreach and invasion of privacy that will deprive responsible adults of their right to enjoy a drink with dinner. Alcohol detectors are a good tool for getting chronic drunk drivers off our roads, but we can fight the scourge of drunk driving without treating every American like an irresponsible alcoholic.

Sarah Longwell is the Managing Director of the American Beverage Institute.