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We have the technology: is solving drunk driving as easy as it sounds?

 Brewers and distillers are among the advocates for increased driving safety, but just how close to reality are Level 5 autonomous vehicles for saving lives?
Brewers and distillers are among the advocates for increased driving safety, but just how close to reality are Level 5 autonomous vehicles for saving lives?

Out of the 37,461 people killed on the roads in 2016, 10,497 people died because they, or someone else, was drunk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another way of thinking about it, someone dies in a drunk driving accident about every 50 seconds. That’s also 30% of all deaths on the roadways, which is down from 50% over the past 30 years, but is still far too many. Hundreds of thousands, by the way, are injured. On average, there is a drunk driving injury every 12 seconds, and in the U.S. alone there are $132 billion in costs per year, according to MADD.

Drunk drivers are a stubborn population. It is estimated that about one-eighth of 1% of drivers in the U.S. are responsible for 30% of all fatalities. For such people, traditional traffic-safety programs like education and deterrence are not likely to move the needle.

While it’s hard to imagine a world without drunk driving, some are saying we have the technology to start making a difference—possibly a big one—once we begin to implement it in the right ways. Yet, at the same time, what are the legal and social issues that come with them? Let’s take a look.

Self-Driving Vehicles

Oddly enough, self-driving technology could be a huge part of the equation. Most experts believe self-driving technology will come to trucks and other commercial vehicles before it is widely available to consumers and passenger vehicles. While the public slowly begins to accept autonomous technology as safer, the ironic reality is that our roads will be safer without the “human factor” behind the wheel.

A self-driving vehicle is an operating system that can’t get drunk. Once Level 5 autonomous vehicles for commercial and passenger vehicles is ready, we can expect to see a huge social benefit from less alcohol-related deaths and injuries. But that’s part of the issue: As a solution anytime soon we actually don’t have the technology yet.

Waymo has been testing in well-mapped, rectilinear, relatively idle, residential neighborhoods in Arizona. They are considered the forerunners among the autonomous pioneers, and even their ambitions have been slowed by all sorts of tech trouble. The larger point is that it will take decades for autonomous technology and adoption to see any kind of significant change. For now, this solution remains pie-in-the-sky.


While Level 5 autonomous vehicles likely won’t be available for the public for some time, what about remote-controlled ones? The Department of Motor Vehicles in California passed regulations in February that allow autonomous vehicles with remote human drivers to operate in the state. “We think we have the ultimate backup system — which is a human,” Elliot Katz, co-founder of Phantom Auto told Reuters. “A remote-control-as-a-service safety solution for autonomous vehicles.”

Remote human operators would be able to control self-driving cars from many miles away. When human intervention is required, remote operators override the self-driving cars’ controls, eliminating the need for the person in the car to be paying attention. The remote-control capabilities could even, one day, mean that everyone with a credit card could be picked up by a driverless car and driven safely home, even if home is way out in west Ooltewah.

With a capable and sober human in an office doing the driving, legal responsibility for the vehicle and its travels falls, according to the autonomous vehicles section of the California DMV Vehicle Code, on the controlling company when the remote driver assist is engaged, leaving you, legally speaking, just a drunk passenger.

For now, that’s just a California thing. What else is happening in tech around the issue of driving safety?

Touch and Breath-Based Systems

There are currently two technologies under study that could see implementation in our commercial and passenger vehicles soon. One is a touch-based system that can read blood alcohol concentration (BAC) through the fingertips. The other is an air-sampling system that can test and isolate the air exhaled by a driver. Both systems are being tested in vehicles right now, and they’ve been underway for over a decade.

In 2006, MADD, the government, traffic safety advocates, and members of the automotive industry created a panel to encourage and support the development of new technology that would stop drivers from operating a vehicle if drunk. The result was DADSS or Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety. According to MADD and DADSS, these devices will be accurate, reliable, and transparent. They would only come into play if someone tries to drive above a .08 BAC.

How does it work? Drivers puts their finger on a sensor and a refracted signal reports the alcohol concentration. The breath-based sensor can differentiate between a driver and a passenger and identify the BAC in carbon-dioxide exhalation. A computer can then use the information provided by the sensors to disable a vehicle from moving.

The idea that technology will save lives is exciting on the one hand. On the other, just how seamless will the technology be? Will it be optional or mandatory?

It also raises such questions about how far should we let technology infiltrate our daily lives for the sake of safety. For example, we have the technology to film a driver’s speed on every road all the time. Presumably if everyone just slowed down there would also be less deaths on our roads, so why not just issue remote tickets until everyone is forced to drive at the posted speed limit?

More specific to the case in point, who is ultimately in charge of driving decisions: the technology, drivers, or regulators? Does the car or device manufacturer incur any liability if an innocent person in another car or on the street is injured or killed? If drivers knowingly use an override function, even if they’re not sure the level of their inebriation, are they more culpable if a crash were to occur?

Will inebriated drivers get into vehicles more when they feel assured that they’ll be driven home by a computer (or a sober, remote driver)?

There are always unintended consequences to widespread social changes, and it’s rarely predictable what the outcomes will be. When technology is applied in reasonable ways toward social applications that can save lives by the thousands annually? There’s reason for optimism.

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.