Tapping Into Technology: Congress Considers Terrifying New Solutions for Drunk Driving

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
tapping into technology congress considers terrifying new solutions for drunk

U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rick Scott (R-FL) plan to introduce new legislation forcing automakers to install hardware that would effectively stop intoxicated individuals from operating motor vehicles by the middle of the next decade. The stated goal is to prevent the thousands of fatal crashes stemming from drunk driving each year. It’s similar to a bill introduced by House Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI), which aims to have advanced DUI prevention devices in all cars by 2024.

While it’s difficult to get bent out of shape over any system that curtails drunk driving, we’ve managed to find a way. As usual, it plays into your author’s ever-growing phobia of surveillance-focused technologies.

Consider how these devices might work. The most basic system installs an ignition interlock, forcing drivers to blow into a tube that measures their blood alcohol concentration. If they don’t pass, the car doesn’t start. This is an antiquated device, already in use for motorists repeatedly caught driving under the influence ⁠— and it can be sidestepped by having someone sober hitting the breathalyzer before our DUI suspect hits the road.

New systems would undoubtedly be more effective… but also uncomfortably invasive. According to Reuters, Udall said automakers could implement devices to determine a driver’s blood alcohol level by touching the steering wheel or engine start button. On-board cameras and sensors could also passively monitor a driver’s breath, eye-movements, and posture while tracking the vehicle for erratic behavior.

“This issue has a real urgency to it,” Udall told the outlet. “The industry is often resistant to new mandates. We want their support but we need to do this whether or not we have it ⁠— lives are at stake.”

From Reuters:

The senators want to establish a pilot program for deployment of the technology by federal agencies.

NHTSA has invested over $50 million over 10 years in related technology, and equipment is already undergoing limited field testing in Maryland and Virginia, Udall said.

In March, Swedish carmaker Volvo said it planned to install cameras and sensors in its cars from the early 2020s, monitoring drivers for signs of being drunk or distracted and intervening to prevent accidents.

Volvo, owned by China’s Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd, said intervention if the driver is found to be drunk, tired or checking a mobile phone could involve limiting the car’s speed, alerting “Volvo on Call” assistance service, or slowing down and parking the car.

Let’s recap, because this is pretty crazy.

U.S. lawmakers are discussing the possibility of mandating vehicles that not only keep a camera pointed at you 24/7 but also monitor your biometric data so it can all be sent… elsewhere. Granted, nobody is explicitly saying your information will be shared, but they don’t really have to, as cars grow ever more connected and automakers increasingly embrace the data-acquisition business.

As much as I’d like to prevent drunk driving, especially after having lost someone to it, forcing automakers to install rectal probes into car seats as a preventative measure is a bridge too far. While Udall and Scott aren’t proposing exactly that, these initiatives still feel like a preamble for commuter colonoscopies. I’m also not stoked about the concept of guilty until proven innocent ⁠— which is the underlying premise for these proposed rules.

At best, all of this collected data will go straight to your insurer ⁠— undoubtedly factoring into your monthly payments and earning the automaker a few bucks in the process. You don’t want to know my worst-case scenario; it’s almost too bleak to seriously entertain.

Since the NHTSA thinks 7,000 American lives could be saved annually via the deployment of such devices, the legislation may have some merit. But I’m more inclined to believe the juice isn’t worth the squeeze if it’s effectively going to violate the personal bubble of every single sober person on the road. Falling routinely kills more people under the age of 66 than drunk driving, but we’ve yet to require the daily wearing of parachutes and cumbersome inflatable jumpsuits. Nobody would stand for that, nor should they for Congress’ bold new play on automotive safety.

[Image: Zstock/Shutterstock]

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  • Chuckrs Chuckrs on Oct 17, 2019

    First thing that came to mind is a quote variously attributed to Mark Twain or a New York court. "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session". Not completely on point, but close enough. Here are Udall and Scott virtue signaling, probably without a clue of the obstacles to simple, low cost and reliable implementation, independent of the societal issues. Actually, a better quote from the past would be Will Rogers - "When I make a joke, everyone laughs. When Congress makes a joke, its the law".

    • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Oct 18, 2019

      Will Rogers also has this: “The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has. Even when you make a tax form out on the level, you don’t know when it’s through if you are a crook or a martyr.”

  • Sceptic Sceptic on Oct 18, 2019

    This system will take more lives that it will save. To wit: 1. How many people will freeze to death or suffer severe frost bite in the northern states when the system freezes over and leaves them stranded? Same with heat in the South. 2. Rear end collisions when the system hits the brakes. 3. Distraction of blowing into tube while driving! Road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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