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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Technical Toolbox

Turning the Car into the Cure

Emerging Technologies Designed to Thwart Drunken Driving

By Karl Vilacoba

About Technical Toolbox

  • Technical Toolbox highlights innovations and emerging technologies that are making an impact in the transportation sector.

Drunken Driving in the U.S., 2009

  • 10,839 traffic fatalities involved a drunken driver (32 percent of all traffic fatalities)
  • One drunken driving fatality occurred every 48 minutes
  • Drunken drivers in fatal crashes were eight times more likely to have a prior DUI conviction
  • The 21- to 24-year-old age group had the highest percentage of drunken drivers in fatal crashes (35 percent), followed by ages 25 to 34 (32 percent) and 35 to 44 (26 percent)
  • —Source: NHTSA

For Minnesota inventor Tom Edwards, the key to cutting down impaired driving is the key itself.  Following a 2006 drunk driving arrest—an experience he summed up as “the most humiliating, degrading, embarrassing and expensive experience I’ve ever undergone”—Edwards, an engineer with over 100 patents to his credit, thought a lot about his mistake. Then he thought of a way to help stop others from repeating it.

An artist's rendering shows how breath-based technologies

being developed by the DADSS program would detect

intoxication and block the car from starting.

The SafeKey is a simple device that looks like one of the car lock button panels that dangle from keychains. It features a row of small LED lights with a push-button located beneath each one. A driver who wants to check their sobriety can activate the SafeKey to put their motor skills to the test. The SafeKey’s lights blink in a random pattern and the driver must press the buttons to imitate the lights, not unlike the old Simon home game.

If the driver’s response is accurate, an electronic switch connected to the engine starter is unlocked. If the driver fails the test, the car will not start. After three failures, the car starter will stay locked and the SafeKey can’t be tried again for an hour. “Whatever you’re on, it will stop you,” said SafeKey President and COO Jim Rennie.

Over 20 years after the introduction of the alcohol interlock ignition system, a host of new technologies are being designed to keep the roads free of impaired drivers. Unlike the interlock, which is now on the books in 49 states as a court-mandated punishment for drunken driving offenses, the latest technologies are, so far, optional. As anti-impaired driving technologies are further honed and their track records are established, they may become common features in new vehicles, offering an opportunity to significantly reduce the number of fatalities on U.S. roads each year.


One new approach to fighting drunken driving is taking the interlock concept a light year ahead. The use of infrared light plays a prominent role in a group of technologies being developed as part of the Driver Alcohol Detection Systems for Safety (DADSS) program, a partnership between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS), an industry group representing several major automakers. The two most promising DADSS applications to date are the breath-based distant spectrometry and touch-based tissue spectrometry systems.

QinetiQ North America scientist John LaRousso demonstrates

DADSS technology prototypes for Mothers Against Drunk Driving

President Jan Withers.

Distant spectrometry uses infrared light and series of sensors throughout the vehicle cabin to analyze the chemical makeup of the driver’s breath based on readings of the spectrum. The system is designed to function as the driver breathes regularly, as opposed to the more invasive interlocks, which require samples to be directly blown into the equipment. The system is being engineered so it will only detect the driver and will not fail if the windows are open or the air condition is running high.

The tissue spectrometry system relies on sensors embedded in key spots such as a car’s stick or steering wheel. Infrared light shines into the user’s skin, scatters and returns back for collection by an optical touch pad. The light contains information on the tissue’s unique chemical properties which can be analyzed to determine alcohol concentration.

DADSS has an enthusiastic supporter in the Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD). The organization has a petition prominently placed on its website calling on Congress to support the ROADS SAFE Act, a bill that would provide
$60 million toward continued DADSS research. MADD National President Jan Withers recently visited QinetiQ North America’s research facility in Waltham, Mass., for a demonstration of the latest prototypes, and was highly impressed by how much progress has been made to date. “We’re very supportive of the research they’re doing up in [Massachusetts],” Withers said. “We want to turn the car into the cure, and that’s what the DADSS projects can do.”

The DADSS and similar technologies are not without controversy, though. Critics such as the American Beverage Institute (ABI), a trade association representing thousands of restaurants, worry that efforts like the ROADS SAFE Act could be the first step towards mandating that alcohol detection systems come standard in all new vehicles, therefore subjecting law-abiding drivers to checks for a criminal behavior, and potentially blocking them from driving if the equipment malfunctions. “Even if 99.99966% of these alcohol detection devices were default free, it would still mean over 4,000 misreadings per day,” ABI Managing Director Sarah Longwell said. The ABI also contends that due to liability and logistical issues, the manufacturers may actually set the detection thresholds well lower than the .08 legal limit, which would prevent a restaurant patron who had a couple of drinks with dinner from being able to start their car.

Withers, who has met with lawmakers throughout the country to advocate legislation requiring interlocks for all drunken driving offenders, said MADD has only pushed for technologies like the DADSS to be presented as an option for car buyers with clean driving records. She added that the engineers are working to ensure the technologies take super-accurate readings, and “in a millisecond” of time.

“They don’t want it to interfere with a sober driver at all. Their standards are very, very high,” Withers said.

SafeKey users must pass a motor skills test attached

to their keychains in order to start their vehicles.

Rennie said the SafeKey is currently being marketed as a solution for individual auto owners and corporate fleets, and often gets compared with over-the-counter Breathalyzers. He said some of his typical customers are family members concerned about loved ones with substance abuse issues or parents who’ve had scares with their children. One mother outfitted the family cars to prevent two hard-partying kids in their twenties from making a dangerous mistake.

“She said that the kids aren’t necessarily loving the device. It’s changing their lifestyles,” Rennie said.

One seeming drawback of the SafeKey is that while it tests a driver’s reaction times, it can’t determine their BAC, which is the number that counts in court. But Rennie counters that an interlock or Breathalyzer can’t stop someone who’s high or too tired to safely drive. He also argues that BAC is a flawed standard since everyone’s body processes alcohol differently – some might be too drunk to drive at .05, for example.

Another technology under production in China works like a cross between the SafeKey and the Breathalyzer. In order to start the car, I-Key users must breath into a sensor built into the car key and prove their sobriety. According to Stephen Ma, a spokesman for Champion Technology Holdings, the product is not available for sale to the public at this time.

Individual automakers are also exploring their possibilities. In 2007, Nissan unveiled a concept car meant to showcase anti-impaired driving technologies that could potentially come in future models. Among the vehicle’s features were alcoholic odor-detecting sensors in the seats, a camera in the dashboard that detects signs of drowsiness in the driver’s eyes, and monitors that scan for erratic driving. None of these systems have been incorporated into any vehicles in production to date, according to John Schilling, senior manager of public relations for Nissan North America.

DUI Apps

Not surprisingly, if you search sites like the Apple Store or Android Market for drunken driving prevention tools, there’s an app for that. While most of the smartphone apps available are basic BAC calculators, some developers have come up with unique ideas that may offer guidance.

A variety of apps are available to test users’ motor skills and response times. DUI kNOw! Time, available for Android platforms, asks users to count aloud to 30. If they finish their count within four seconds of the actual time they earn a passing grade. A guess more than four seconds off will prompt a message recommending that the user reconsider driving.

The Who Will Drive app, also for Android, puts a new spin on the coin toss to settle who’ll take designated driver duties for the night. Who Will Drive vocally records the names of potential drivers and randomly chooses the “loser” (if that’s how you look at it).

Another crop of apps are geared toward cutting down arrests not by reducing drunken driving, but by warning drivers where checkpoints are located. In May, MADD called on Google and Apple to remove any apps specifically marketed to help drunk drivers evade police. As of this writing, the one app that was singled out as an example in a letter to the heads of those companies remained available, as did others offering comparable services.

According to the NHTSA, there were 10,839 drunken driving-related traffic fatalities nationally in 2009 along with nearly 1.5 million DUI arrests. Between all of the fines, the lawyers and now the technologies being developed in response, Rennie noted that drunken driving is “an economy all its own,” and unfortunately, a cultural issue in the U.S.

“You go to England or Norway and blow a .02 [those countries’ legal limit] and that’s it,” Rennie said. “They don’t fight it, and those people drink. But the difference is, they take public transportation home.”

Karl Vilacoba is the managing editor of InTransition.

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