NTSB looks to technology to end drunken driving in the U.S.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - 11:07am

WASHINGTON  -- In hopes of someday virtually ending drunken driving in the United States, federal safety advocates Tuesday encouraged ongoing development of in-vehicle technology that unobtrusively tests all motorists to see if they have imbibed.

The National Transportation Safety Board also said that all 50 states should require ignition interlock devices for any driver convicted even once of driving under the influence. The devices are now required for first-time offenders in about one-third of states.

The board encouraged continued research in DADSS -- driver alcohol detection system for safety -- which tests drivers through either touch or breath. If the government and automakers overcome technological hurdles and win public acceptance, the DADSS system could be installed as standard equipment on cars and essentially eliminate drunken driving, saving more than 7,000 lives a year, the board said.

The safety board called the DADSS technology "promising," although acknowledging it is years away from perfecting.

But in a sign that political challenges are as formidable as technological ones, a restaurant trade association immediately criticized both recommendations.

"If this technology is successfully implemented in all cars, it will be nearly impossible for drivers to have a glass of wine with dinner without worrying whether their cars will start," Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute said in a written statement. The system "will make responsible social drinking before driving a thing of the past."

And interlock devices, which prevent an engine from starting until a breath sample is analyzed, should be used only for hard-core, repeat offenders, Longwell said.

Interestingly, the NTSB recommended the ambitious goals while focused on a relatively rare transportation occurrence -- accidents caused by motorists driving the wrong way on divided highways. Some 300 people die on average every year in such collisions, a number that has held steady for years.

According to an NTSB staff study, two factors play heavily in "wrong way" crashes -- alcohol and age.

In more than 60% of wrong-way collisions, drivers are impaired by alcohol, the NTSB said.

"Our study revealed high levels of impairment," board Chairman Deborah Hersman said. "More than half of the impaired drivers ... had a (blood-alcohol content) of more than twice the legal limit."

In 15% of wrong-way collisions, drivers are over the age of 70. Older drivers were over-represented probably because of their diminished cognitive abilities, prescription drug use and dementia, the safety board staff said.

Highway design is also a factor in wrong-way collisions, the board said, noting that few motorists enter highways the wrong way at sweeping, clover-leaf interchanges. Instead, most started their "wrong way" trips at T-shaped intersections, where drivers could more easily become confused.

The solution, the NTSB said, is manifold.

The board said all states should require first-time alcohol offenders to use ignition interlock devices. Only 17 states currently require the devices for first-time offenders.

"It's time for the other 33 states to step up for safety," Hersman said.

Modern devices require random and periodic breath samples, designed to defeat motorists who have others breathe into the device.

The board also said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should expedite its work with auto manufacturers on DADSS.

And the highway designers should use better signs, street markings and lighting to warn drivers they are entering a highway the wrong way, it said.

Board members also discussed having GPS devices warn motorists they were heading the wrong way. But, after some discussion, they did not pursue a suggestion that tire spikes -- like those used to prevent thefts at car rental facilities -- be used. The spikes are impractical on highway ramps and a danger to motorcyclists, board staffers said.

Board members said wrong-way accidents, though rare, are unusually lethal because of the high speeds involved and because 80% are head-on collisions, and thus they deserve attention.

"Thirty-two years ago this month I had to tell my wife that her cousin was killed" in a wrong-way crash, board member Robert Sumwalt said. "You think how could something like this happen? How could someone end in the wrong lane? But it does happen."

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