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NHTSA working on tech to eliminate drunk driving accidents

Each year, some 10,000 people are killed in drunk-driving accidents on U.S. roads and highways. And while some of the victims are the drunk drivers themselves, many are innocent individuals (including children) who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Drunk driving and DUI accident rates used to be much higher than they are today. Increasingly tough laws and public awareness campaigns have made it clear that drunk driving is both illegal and socially unacceptable. But we have not been able to eliminate the behavior altogether, as evidenced by the 10,000 people who lose their lives each year. Could we ever get to a point where drunk driving is no longer a threat?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the answer is yes. Since 2008, the NHTSA and outside researchers have been working to develop the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). By 2020, collaborators hope to have developed technology that could one day become standard in all new vehicles.

The challenge with universal alcohol-detection systems is that they need to be incredibly fast and very accurate while also being unobtrusive. Unlike today's ignition interlock devices, which are not always accurate or easy to use, the DADSS would have to perform flawlessly and ensure that a vehicle would only be disabled if its driver was over the legal limit for blood-alcohol concentration.

That being said, the DADSS program has made impressive strides so far. There are two basic testing methods that researchers are working on. The first is a passive breathalyzer that detects intoxication by taking air samples from the ambient air in the car's cab. Sensors would be placed strategically to ensure that only the driver's breath samples are tested.

The other is a touch-based technology that uses infrared light. When the driver grips the steering wheel (or presses the start button in certain cars), infrared light shines underneath the skin in their hands. Sensors can then measure the blood-alcohol concentration in tiny blood vessels.

If research and development continues at its current pace, these technologies could be perfected in the next five years or so. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean they will become standard equipment in new vehicles right away. The political and legal processes are usually much slower than the pace of technology.

We could live in a world without drunk-driving accidents or fatalities. Hopefully, that world is just around the corner.

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