The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing losses from motor vehicle crashes. Recently, it performed an analysis of the potential for in-vehicle alcohol detection systems and found that these systems would be likely to prevent around 9,000 traffic fatalities each year.
What is an in-vehicle alcohol detection system?
The idea behind in-vehicle alcohol detection systems is to keep vehicles from starting when a certain amount of alcohol is detected in the driver.
Today, we have ignition interlock devices required by almost all states in cases of drunk driving. These devices rely on a breathalyzer-like device, which is connected to the car’s starter. The driver must blow a qualifying breath in order for the car to start. Additionally, the driver may be required to provide a clean sample from time to time while they are driving.
In the future, in-vehicle alcohol detection systems are expected to be much less intrusive. They might rely on cameras and sensors already installed in the car. They might test the ambient air for breath-alcohol, for example, rather than having the driver blow into a tube. They might measure things like eye movements and other physical symptoms of drunkenness.
In 2009, nearly two-thirds of the respondents to a survey said they would support the installation of such systems in all vehicles, as long as the system was fast, accurate and unobtrusive.
If the system were accurate, fast and unobtrusive, how many lives could it save?
Assuming that we can get the technical details to work right, the systems would refuse to start the vehicle’s engine either if the driver had a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or greater, or if any alcohol were detected at all.
The IIHS examined crash reports from all fatal crashes in the U.S. between 2015 and 2018 in which at least one driver was found to be drunk. It then applied risk calculations to these crashes, with the assumption that some of them would still have occurred with neither driver drunk.
Ultimately, they determined that approximately 37,636 crash deaths over that period — a quarter of the total — could have been prevented if neither driver had been over 0.08%. That works out to roughly 9,000 per year.
Even more lives could be saved if the technology could guarantee that no driver would have any alcohol in their system. The IIHS estimates that that would prevent around 12,000 deaths annually.
“We haven’t made much progress in the fight against drunk driving since the mid-1990s,” commented the author of the paper. “This is something that could put a real dent in the alcohol-impaired driving problem.”
Steps are being taken now
Congress has expressed support for researching in-vehicle alcohol detection systems. Safety groups and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are currently working to get these devices made standard for all new vehicles.
The technology isn’t perfect yet. Some concerns remain, especially round accuracy and privacy. But we are slowly working our way toward vehicles that don’t work for drunk drivers. That could save thousands of people from tragedy every year.