Highway bill includes $21M to put alcohol sensors in cars

The initiative is spearheaded through a partnership between the NHTSA and major automakers.

The government may soon receive a significant funding boost to develop alcohol sensors for vehicles, thanks to a $21 million provision in the latest transportation spending bill.

Known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), the technology automatically detects when a driver has a blood alcohol concentration at or above .08, currently deemed illegal in every state. Rather than requiring drivers to blow into a breathalyzer, the system integrates passive sensors to 'unobtrusively' measure BAC and disable the vehicle if the reading is not below the legal threshold.

One method involves a finger-scanning infrared sensor built directly into the ignition button. Another detects alcohol in exhaled air, with the alleged ability to distinguish between the breath of the driver or passenger. The accuracy of either method is unclear.

Proponents view DADSS as a way to help prevent thousands of deaths on US roads each year. Developed through a partnership between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and major automakers, the technology has been presented as a voluntary feature -- "an option available to vehicle owners" according to NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind.

Unsurprisingly, the initiative has also faced significant backlash. Critics point out that, like backup cameras, the 'optional' aspect could be only a temporary step toward mandatory integration in new vehicles. Others observe that the most dangerous drunks will find easy ways to avoid the technology, minimizing the impact on road deaths. Another issue centers around the expected 'safety margin' in the BAC measurements.

"A former program manager of DADSS ... conceded that the devices will be set with a safety margin, imposing a de facto legal limit as low as .05 or .04," said Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant organization that aims to protect responsible alcohol consumption. "Both NHTSA and supporters of the program, such as MADD, admit the ultimate goal is to make these devices standard in all new cars."

The NHTSA has not outlined a time-frame for bringing the technology from prototype development to production.

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