Technology Targets Drunk Drivers

New devices should help combat threat posed by too much alcohol, experts say

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, July 13, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The war against drunk driving is turning high-tech.

Devices that can sense the amount of alcohol in the air around your face or even in your sweat are already on the drawing board, to join current technology aimed at stopping you from getting behind that wheel if you've had too much to drink, researchers say.

"People continue to drive drunk because they can," said Heidi Castle, a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). "That's when technology comes into play. Technology has the potential to not allow someone who is intoxicated to operate a motor vehicle. It essentially separates the weapon -- the car -- from the drunk driver."

But even though some technology has been on the market for a generation, impaired driving is still a problem.

Last year, almost 17,000 deaths and half a million injuries were caused by drunk driving crashes in the United States.

One of the featured technologies at a recent MADD symposium was the "ignition interlock," essentially a tube connected to the vehicle ignition. The driver breathes into the tube and, if his blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is over a certain threshold, the system prevents the car from starting.

"This is the gold standard," said Paul Marques, senior research scientist with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), a nonprofit public health research institute.

"As far as deterrents or prevention, this is probably the most common," Castle added.

"We have 20 years' experience with interlock, but it's underutilized," Marques said. "It won't have an impact on impaired driving unless it's used."

The problem in the United States is getting courts to order it.

With 1.4 million DUI arrests every year, no more than 100,000 interlocks are being used. Studies have shown that the device results in a 65 percent reduction in recidivism.

A number of other futuristic technologies are also on the horizon. Among them:

  • Transdermal alcohol sensors, such as SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor), to measure alcohol that is lost through the skin through sweat. The gadget, worn as an ankle bracelet, "sniffs" every 30 minutes and transfers data via a wireless connection to a probation officer or other law-enforcement official.
  • Passive sensors to sample the air around a person's face, usually without the person knowing it. The sensor can be hidden in a police officer's flashlight and, if it senses alcohol, represents probable cause for more sobriety tests.
  • A 2.5-ounce device to monitor the movements of someone convicted of drunk driving. Worn as a bracelet or anklet, this gadget uses global positioning system technology to alert law-enforcement personnel if an offender has entered a bar or gone someplace he shouldn't. It's part of the Southwest Riverside County (Calif.) "Watch Your Step" program.
  • Near-infrared spectroscopy to determine blood alcohol composition under the skin. These devices would go into every car and be totally passive -- in other words, the driver wouldn't need to do anything, even breathe into a tube. The device is still in development and is being used by former U.S. Defense Department physicists. "It's totally unaffordable today," Marques noted.

But technology can only do so much to combat drunk driving.

"When you're talking about drunk driving, there's no silver bullet," Castle said. "What we need is a comprehensive solution. One of the main components is law enforcement, but we will likely never have enough police officers on the street to arrest every drunk driver."

Marques added: "Drunk driving is a slowly unfolding tragedy that doesn't get better. Technology can help, but we can't do it without a human program."

More information

MADD has more on drunk driving.

SOURCES: Paul Marques, Ph.D., senior research scientist, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), Calverton, Md.; Heidi Castle, national director, communications, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Dallas; Riverside, Calif. Press-Enterprise; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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