News & Updates

WCVB Boston  |  January 5, 2013

In-car alcohol sensors aim to stop drunken drivers in their tracks

WALTHAM, Mass. —It is estimated 10,000 people will die this year as a result of drunken drivers.

A Waltham company is working on high-tech solutions it believes could save many of those lives.

Preventable deaths steered researchers to developing the driver alcohol-detection system for safety.

“We hope to reduce fatalities by 7,000 every year,” said Bud Zaouck, director of transportation solutions at Qinetiq.

Researchers have narrowed down their focus to two technologies. One is breath-based, and the other is touch-based.

Zaouck said the breath-based system is different from ignition locks already used to stop repeat drunken drivers.

“The devices that we are looking at are non-invasive. They’re not obtrusive. You get into vehicles, and in less than half a second it can detect the amount of alcohol and whether you are above or below the legal limit,” said Zaouck.

If you are above the limit, you will not be able to drive the car. Another part of the $10 million project focuses on testing blood alcohol content when the driver touches the car’s ignition button.

“In that button itself there’s an infrared light that will shine into the finger. And the reflection contains an optical signature of the alcohol. That’s how we figure out how much alcohol there is,” said Zaouck.

The American Beverage Institute, a trade group representing thousands of chain restaurants, opposes the technology. They say “targeting all Americans with alcohol- sensing technology…could eliminate many people’s ability to have a glass of wine with dinner, a beer at a ballgame, or a champagne toast at a wedding, and drive home.”

Quinetiq says the sensors will only stop the car if the driver is above the legal limit of 0.08.

“I call it the seat belt of our generation because it’s the single biggest opportunity to save lives today on the roads,” said Zaouck.

The project is funded by the major car manufacturers and the federal government. The technology could become optional, or standard equipment in the next decade.