Last year nearly 13,000 people died specifically because someone drove drunk — his or her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was .08 or higher — according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
"No one should have to be the victim of a drunk driver because drunk driving is a preventable crime," says Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) National President Glynn Birch, whose 21-month-old son was killed by a drunk driver.
MADD aims to make drunk driving intolerable.
"The United States can be a nation without drunk driving," Birch says. That was the theme of MADD's first international symposium reviewing how technology can help achieve this goal. Symposium participants looked at both the effectiveness of existing alcohol-detection technology and potential of emerging technology in preventing drunk driving.
Among the technologies examined were breath-based interlock devices, passive sensors, continuous transdermal alcohol monitoring and, looking to the future, interlock devices that a driver must touch.
Ignition interlock programs
Breath alcohol ignition interlocks have proven able to control impaired driving and predict future DUI (driving under the influence), says Paul Marques, Ph.D., senior research scientist with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) Public Services Research Institute. While first-time DUI offenders in New Mexico must use interlocks, typically they are used by repeat offenders as part of their court sentence or to get their driver's license back.
Interlocks are in-vehicle devices with a tube that drivers must blow into. In most cases, they require a low or near-zero BAC breath test before a car will start.
Preferably, Marques says, the technology is talked about as "interlock programs," not just "interlock devices," because the technology opens a door to DUI control approaches. "A device by itself is not sufficient to change behavior," he emphasizes. "Programs need to have built into them — from the start — active monitoring of violations and real consequences for violations."
No technology or program can help solve a social problem unless it is widely utilized, Marques says, and interlock programs are not widely utilized despite most states having interlock-enabling laws.
He points out California's 1986 Farr-Davis driver safety act authorized the first pilot program to evaluate ignition interlocks. Since then, he says, "It has been a long, slow slog getting legislatures, courts and motor vehicle authorities to not just adopt interlock programs, but use them widely, monitor and enforce them."
With about 1.4-million DUI arrests each year, Marques says, "We should have more than the 100,000 interlocks in service that we do. It means we are getting those devices, shown to reduce recidivism by 65 percent, into the cars of fewer than 10 percent of those convicted."
In addition, as many as 75 percent of drivers convicted of DUI continue to drive with suspended licenses, he says. "Unlicensed drivers are nearly four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers with valid licenses," he says. "The research evidence supporting the safety benefit of ignition interlocks is clear and uncontroversial."
James Fell, senior program director at PIRE Public Services Research Institute, concludes if alcohol ignition interlocks were used by 100 percent of first-time and repeat DUI offenders, commercial drivers, and drivers under age 21, 3,000 to 5,000 lives (out of about 13,000) per year could be saved.
Passive sensors to establish reasonable suspicion
Another existing technology, passive alcohol sensors, like interlocks, detect and measure breath alcohol and use electrochemical fuel cell technology. The sensors can be placed in a flashlight and used by police officers to detect alcohol presence and help establish reasonable suspicion for further sobriety testing.
Fell refers to passive sensors as an extension of a police officer's nose, held up to 10 inches from a suspected alcohol source. He says passive sensors are quick (alcohol level is displayed in seconds) and objective. While they are legal and constitutional, they are not preliminary breath tests or evidential tests. They can detect low levels of alcohol, down to 0.01 percent breath alcohol concentration.
Passive sensors, available since 1995, increase detection of DUI by about 50 percent at checkpoints and 10 percent on routine patrol, Fell says. Yet, he notes, only about 4,000 units have been sold in the past five years. At best, he says only 2,000 or fewer are in use, penetration is very low, .4 percent out of 500,000 traffic law enforcement officers.
If all traffic enforcement officers used passive sensors, he says up to 700,000 more drunk drivers could be detected and 400 to 800 more lives could be saved per year.
"The general deterrent effect of their widespread use could be substantial," he says.
Continuous monitoring for offenders
Continuous transdermal alcohol monitoring detects alcohol consumption not by breath testing but through transdermal alcohol testing. This science monitors "insensible perspiration," the constant, otherwise unnoticeable excretion of sweat through skin. Specifically, continuous transdermal monitoring measures ethanol, a by-product of alcohol consumption, in insensible perspiration. The monitor locks to the ankle of an offender and information is uploaded to a remote server.
Currently, there are remote monitoring programs in 36 states and more than 22,000 offenders have been monitored since 2003. Typically, continuous transdermal alcohol monitoring is used on repeat DUI offenders. Although less common, first-time DUI offender programs also use this monitoring to evaluate an alcohol problem and try to prevent a first-time offender from becoming a second- or third-time offender.
Potentially, if worn by all repeat offenders convicted of DUI — assuming continuous transdermal alcohol monitors effectively prevent offenders from drinking — 100 to 200 lives per year could be saved, Fell says.
The estimates of lives saved given by Fell are based on "best case" scenarios. Adding them, their sum is not 13,000. To realize a nation without drunk driving, more must be done.
Emerging in-vehicle technologies
New technologies are being developed that could one day be found in every vehicle. Among them is an alcohol detection device which uses transdermal technology not worn on the body, but instead located on the steering wheel.
Before a vehicle equipped with this technology will start, a driver will need to touch a steering wheel sensor, which measures the driver's alcohol level. If the alcohol level exceeds a preset limit, the vehicle will not start and results are recorded along with date and time. If the driver passes the test, testing also will be done periodically. If an unsafe alcohol level is detected while the vehicle is being driven, the vehicle's horn will sound and emergency flashers go off.
Commercial vehicles and vehicles driven by teens are expected to be the first to have the technology. Within about a year, this technology will be available as a retrofit or built-in device for all types of vehicle steering wheels, or it could be installed off the steering wheel in another location convenient for the driver, such as the door or dashboard.
Another technology being developed is touch-based alcohol testing that uses optical technology. Two types of optical technology include NIR (near infrared) spectroscopy and multispectral imaging to look beneath the fingerprint.
Touch-based alcohol testing is non-invasive (no biohazards associated with blood, breath, urine, saliva or sweat); rapid (done in 30 seconds or less — no waiting for mouth alcohol to clear); accurate (equivalent to evidentiary breath measurements); and only requires passive contact from the individual being tested.
In simplest terms, NIR spectroscopy is like a flashlight held against the palm of a hand. Light penetrates the tissue and the reflected light contains unique information about the tissue structure and chemistry. Alcohol has a unique optical signature different from all other chemicals, and the signature can be used to determine alcohol concentration levels.
NIR spectroscopy technology for corrections, workplace and transportation applications could be ready as soon as 2007 and later for evidence collection.
Another application of touch-based optics technology is biometric identification. A biometric device could replace the key needed to start a vehicle and be used to set preferences for an individual driver, such as seat and mirror positions.
Law enforcement is familiar with fingerprint technology for linking evidence to suspects as well as access control. Anyone thinking about the traditional fingerprint technology needs to think deeper. Technology (multispectral imaging) exists to compare an individual's external fingerprint with the skin below (sometimes referred to as the internal fingerprint). By including infrared light, alcohol concentrations can be determined via the blood.
Installing a low-cost, easy-to-use biometric device (based on multispectral imaging technology) in a vehicle is probably three years away. Having a sensor that is both a biometric device and an alcohol sensor is probably another two years away, in other words, 2011.
After the symposium, attendees agreed to develop an alliance to look at the feasibility of developing and installing emerging, voluntary, non-regulatory technologies. MADD and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety will lead the efforts of vehicle manufacturers, the technology industry and safety organizations.
While technology is being developed for use tomorrow, the time for using interlock programs, passive sensors and remote alcohol monitoring programs is now.
Because technology will not immediately eliminate drunk driving, an improved DUI criminal justice system, increased law enforcement efforts, maximum seat belt use and alternative transportation strategies also are needed. Using these strategies, MADD, looking to a more immediate future, aims to reduce drunk driving fatalities by 25 percent before 2008. Ultimately, the goal is a nation without drunk driving.
Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer, working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2005-DD-BX-K162 awarded by the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.