Driving Drunk – A Cherished Tradition

by updated 2011/02/05

Or at least it is cherished by the drunks. We have heard before about mass-produced cars that will detect whether a driver is drunk and not allow the engine to start. This story sometimes seems like the saga of cold fusion… which for 20 years has been 10 years in the future. Earlier this week newspapers all over the world, from the Economic Times of India to our small local paper covered a photo-op by Transportation Secretary, Ray Lahood.  In this appearance he lent credence to a public demonstration of an alcohol detection system that could become part of new cars sold in the U.S. Or at least that was the story.

Like many people, I excitedly read these stories, thinking of what a great tool this would be to keep drunks from driving, and often killing and maiming other innocent drivers. I do know the kind of furor these devices would create among people who view such things as invasions of privacy, government intrusion, or infringement on freedoms. But come on I thought, even the most ardent civil libertarian would be hard-pressed to object to this safety device. Certainly the only real objections would come from alcohol abusers that wanted to continue their drunken driving undetected. Undetected that is until they kill someone or if lucky get pulled over and arrested before they cause a tragedy. Right? Makes sense doesn’t it? Oh well, silly me. Of course it doesn’t.

In one of the articles, I found the key piece of information tucked into the next-to-last sentence. These devices would be optional equipment and not required to be installed in new cars. The installation of these alcohol detecting devices would be optional!!!???? So all of us that never drink and drive, ever, would buy new cars with the technology? And people who do drive after drinking would buy cars without it? Well maybe not exactly. If the technology is optional, then businesses might install it in fleet cars, but many non-drinkers would not. They would not because they might worry about the resale value of a car that has the device installed. After all if your used car has the device, you are limiting your potential buyers to people who want a car with it installed. It is sort of like smoking and dating. I know a decent, normal, 40 something year old guy who cannot find a mate. He smokes. So he has eliminated 80% of the women he meets before he even starts looking. I told him to get rid of the butts and he might find who he is looking for.  He laughed, thinking I was joking.   If the technology to stop drinking and driving is installed in a car, you do limit the salability of the car a bit. Or so I thought.

I posted a few of my thoughts on a forum discussing this issue and was told that having the devices installed would not affect re-sale value because any new owner could easily have it removed or disabled. I have also been flamed by many people who see this as a government intrusion, unconstitutional, (??), or even a “civil rights” issue. So much for my silly thoughts on that part of the debate. I was also struck by how many people were worried about the technology being inaccurate or mal-functioning. As one person said; if the device is set to detect an alcohol level of .08 or above and my level is .07, what if it shuts me out from driving? To that all I can do is applaud the device and ask you “where is your brain”? If these devices do ever become common I think they should be set well below .08. As that may run into legal problems, at least setting them at the legal limit would be a start.  And for the few that might get locked out because the device calculates their alcohol a little too high, I say tough luck.  You, and the rest of us, will be better off without you being behind the wheel.  Still, I seem to be in the minority.  The Huffington Post wrote about the automobile alcohol detecting devices and most of the comments are exactly opposite my view.

In summary, this technology will never work unless all of the following are true:

1. The devices must be required on all new cars, and maybe incentives given to install them on used cars.

2. They must be installed in such a way that they cannot be removed, disabled, or bypassed.

3.  They must not be easily fooled.  For example the skin sensing technology discussed in some of the articles could be bypassed just by wearing gloves.

4.  We must stand up to the people who are against the technology in the same way that we stood up to those opposed to seat belt and child safety seat requirements.

My belief is that the photo-op by Mr. Lahood was just more political grandstanding aimed at trying to fool people into thinking something is really being done to prevent intoxicated driving.  I think we must see this technology for what it really is.  It is a method to greatly reduce the carnage caused by drunk driving. It does not matter whether it is a teenager truly making a bad decision or a seasoned drunk who has driven intoxicated many times before.  I would rather see people stopped from driving drunk in the first place than witness the results of their driving.  I would rather see them stopped from driving drunk than see them put them in jail for doing so.

It seems like a simple solution to a terrible problem.  What do you think?

Will Sig

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