By Brooke Williams
The Driven to Protect Initiative and Virginia DMV presented new alcohol detection technology at Wednesday’s highway safety summit.
Schumer backs $48M effort to install high-tech breath-based system
By Tatiana Cirisano
Sen. Chuck Schumer is racing to install new technology in cars that could put a stop to drunk driving, saving up to 7,000 lives per year.
The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety — revealed last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — uses touch- and breath-based systems to detect if a driver has had too many drinks. If the systems detect that the driver’s blood alcohol level is above the legal limit, the car shuts down.
The high-tech solution has been in the works since 2008 through a partnership between the NHTSA and Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, but it won’t hit production for several years, researchers say. To speed up the process, Schumer is co-sponsoring a bill that would funnel $48 million in federal funding to the project over six years.
“Use of sensible technology like DADSS could spare lives and families in the future,” Schumer said in a release.
The New York Democrat’s support comes just weeks after Steven Romeo, 55, crashed his truck into a limousine in Suffolk County — the New York county with the highest rate of alcohol-related crashes — killing four women.
Schumer’s support for the ROADS SAFE Act, which was first introduced by New Mexico Democrat Sen. Tom Udall in June, is part of his broader effort to curb drunk driving accidents. He urged the Senate Commerce Committee last month to prioritize $7 million for New York’s STOP-DWI campaign, which funds prevention efforts, as part of the Highway Trust Fund, and after the Suffolk County crash pushed for better safety standards on stretch limos.
Romeo was charged with a DWI, but his blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash is under dispute.
“Drunk driving is a scourge that takes a toll on countless families and communities across the country and that’s why we need a new, innovative approach to keep our kids safe and our families intact,” Schumer said.
The technology is a potential game-changer for New York, where drunk driving-related deaths increased by 14 percent between 2009 and 2013, the last year for which data is available.
There were 8,368 drunk driving crashes in New York in 2013, of which 358 were fatal, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Capital Region mourned 69 drunk-driving related deaths between 2011 and 2013; in Central New York, 98; in Western New York, 102; in Rochester-Finger Lakes, 92; in Hudson Valley, 135; in North Country, 60; and in Long Island, 192.
But Dr. Bud Zaouk, the DADSS program and technical manager hired by the NHTSA and ACTS to jointly oversee the project, said the new technology could change that.
“The DADSS research program holds great potential to reverse this trend and invent a world without drunk driving,” Zaouk said.
He added that DADSS could save about 7,000 lives annually, according to an analysis by the Institute for Highway Safety.
Genie Sample, a volunteer for the Mothers Against Drunk Driving affiliate in Albany, said that she was “blown away” when she first learned of DADSS through a video on the project’s website. After her brother, Scott, was killed in a drunk driving accident in Watertown four years ago, Sample began volunteering for MADD by court monitoring and speaking to at high schools and fairs.
“When I do these, I hope that maybe I’ll prevent a loss or injury from happening to one family, then I figure it’s a success,” Sample said about her volunteering. “But seeing (DADSS), this could have such a huge impact on so many people and so many lives.”
Schumer thinks DADSS should be mandatory for those convicted of a DWI, and optional otherwise. But Sample said the technology is equally important for casual drinkers.
The drunk driver who killed her brother was “just over” the legal blood-alcohol limit, Sample said, and the driver had never been charged with a DWI. One-third of those arrested or convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders, but Sample is worried about the other two-thirds, too.
“I think there’s a sense that, well, ‘I don’t drink a lot, maybe tonight I’ll have a little bit over, but I can probably make it home,'” she said. “But you’re just as much at risk as anybody else and this technology will help with that.”
J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer at MADD, said DADSS advances on the ignition interlock, a car breathalyzer technology mandatory for those convicted of a DWI in New York. Unlike the ignition interlock, which requires the driver to breathe directly into a device to start the car, DADDS requires no action on part of the driver, making it completely non-invasive.
Sensors on the wheel or driver seat door detect alcohol levels in a driver’s breathing, and a touch detector on the car starter button or gear shift measures alcohol in capillaries near the surface of the skin. All this happens within one second of the driver entering the car.
The DADSS also doesn’t need to be calibrated as the interlock does, and lasts the lifetime of the car.
“We look at this as another safety feature in the car, much like an airbag or much like anti-lock brakes,” he said.
Schumer estimated that the technology would cost $150 to $200 per vehicle, in line with the cost of the safety measures Griffin mentioned. Griffin said he is optimistic the technology, once released, will be in high demand.
“This really is a technology that we think can actually eliminate drunk driving in the future,” he said.