Keying in on Tech to Prevent Drunken Driving

The beeping and blinking reminders to fasten your seat belt after you start your car are minor annoyances. But someday, you may not be able to turn the car on without fastening your seat belt and taking a Breathalyzer test.

Volvo is testing a vehicle that takes multiple approaches toward preventing drunken driving, although a spokesman for the Swedish carmaker's North American division doubts that such oversight would be tolerated in the United States.

More than 1.4 million people were arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol in 2003, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. And 13,096 motorists and passengers were killed that year in traffic accidents where one of the drivers had a blood alcohol concentration of at least 0.08 percent -- the legal definition of "intoxication" now used in all 50 states, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Safety groups are working to change public attitudes, while police and highway patrols step up enforcement. But automakers, under the directive of developing safer cars, are also tackling the issue.

Blow, Buckle and Go … Slow

The most recent developments come from Volvo Car Company, based in Sweden, a country where a blood alcohol level of 0.02 percent -- the result of one drink -- is enough to get drivers in serious trouble.

The Swedish unit of American carmaker Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich., announced last week that it is testing a prototype car with a unique seat belt latch.

It contains a small breath analyzer, similar to the handheld device used by cops at roadside stops, to determine the blood alcohol levels of suspected drunken drivers.

Drivers have to blow into the "Breathalyzer" to verify that they are not impaired by alcohol. But before the car will start, the high-tech buckle must also be latched into place -- indicating to the car's computer that the driver has fastened the seat belt.

"According to the EU Commission, about 10,000 people a year die in alcohol-related accidents on European roads. Many car accidents also result in serious personal injuries because drivers and passengers fail to wear their seat belts," said Ingrid Skogsmo, head of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre, in a statement. "That is why we are also working on the development of a Breathalyzer lock."

The car is also equipped with a special set of electronic ignition keys that can be programmed to limit it to preset speeds. That way, says Volvo, parents would have an additional safety measure when handing over the car to their inexperienced teen drivers. This additional "interlock" may also help the commercial sector -- say, to guarantee a delivery firm's fleet of trucks could never zip through congested streets at unsafe highway speeds.

Safety Sans Big Brother?

Officials at Volvo are quick to note that the interlocks are just small parts of the company's overall effort to develop safer vehicles. But by studying how drunkenness affects driver coordination and reaction times, researchers may be able to understand and develop better systems to combat the overall condition of impaired driving -- say while drowsy or distracted by a cell phone call.

"What we're doing … we're looking at the physiological condition on when drivers start to lose awareness of the road," says Dan Johnston, spokesman for Volvo Cars of North America. "How can we make a car that responds to the needs of a driver in areas where we haven't even tried or thought of before?"

Johnston is quick to point out it may take years -- if ever -- for the technology developed out of its research center to make it into production vehicles. And while the interlock technology might sound useful in combating drunken driving, Volvo might be hard-pressed to get it adopted into cars destined for the U.S. market.

"One of the things you have to realize is that the philosophy of 'state control' is much different in Sweden," says Johnston. "The idea to have an ignition key that is programmable would be ideal to limit a 16-year-old from going over 60 mph. But we would never take something like that … it would be seen as too invasive."

Interlock Interference

Still, the idea of using such vehicle interlocks to limit the chances of impaired or otherwise dangerous driving behavior is gaining cautious support from safety advocates.

Chuck Hurley, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Irving, Texas, notes that vehicle interlocks have been proposed -- and used -- since the 1970s with mixed results. Early breath-based interlocks similar to Volvo's proposal were installed in the vehicles of repeat DUI offenders. However, determined lawbreakers were able to skirt such devices by having other, sober accomplices blow into the devices to "unlock" the vehicles.

But Hurley and others believe that interlock technology is improving. One development that is being hailed by Hurley is a technology that may detect BAC-levels through the skin. Being developed by a company called Lumidigm in Albuquerque, N.M, and funded with money from the Justice Department, the technology could allow for a non-removable ankle cuff that would allow a convicted DUI offender to operate a car only if he or she was sober.

Still, Hurley is aware that technology isn't a silver bullet against drunken driving. And pushing for interlock technology without a proven track record and, more importantly, without public support could be more harmful than beneficial.

"You really have to be careful when putting new technology in cars," says Hurley. "I was a 25-year veteran of the war for airbags. And while there's no harmful effect on adults, it had the unintended effect of killing hundreds of kids because we just weren't aware that they were too powerful -- especially against smaller bodies that weren't buckled in or seated properly."

As such, Hurley says he and other safety groups are thrilled that Volvo is taking steps toward research and development. But he's reserving judgment until he sees further scientific research and findings.

"It really has to be well-tested … to ensure that it achieve the goal [of safety] without hassling the public," says Hurley.