System to detect drunk drivers, US Senate wants

While the technology system to detect drunk drivers looks beneficial, capable of saving thousands of lives each year by detecting whether someone is unable to drive or even the levels of alcohol in their blood, it also raises some ethical issues – such as the question of who will have access to the data.

The first comprehensive driver intoxication detection technology is expected to get approval in America later this year. This system will be able to determine if the level of alcohol in his blood is above 0.08 percent, which is the maximum permissible in almost all states of the country, and consequently to immobilize the car.

In particular, this technology – which was also partly funded by the US Government – will be able to detect and analyse the levels of alcohol in the air around the driver, or have a sensor on the engine start button or corresponding sensors on the steering wheel, taking the necessary sample from the driver’s hands.

The American highway traffic safety agency NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) warns that the intoxication detection system must be accurate, cannot be bypassed and not disturb the sober driver.

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Given that the NHTSA estimates that in the U.S. 10 thousand people are killed every year due to drunk driving (one every 52 minutes) and one million drunk drivers are arrested, the U.S. Senate may pass the law on the mandatory use of intoxication detection technology by automakers. The latter, in this case, will have three years to respond, after receiving an official briefing from the respective US Department of Transportation.

System to detect drunk drivers

However, the country’s General Secretariat of Transport can extend the scope of the Law to a depth of up to ten years, if it considers that there are clear reasons. For example, in the 1970s a system was imposed that did not allow the engine to start until the driver’s belt was buttoned to the buckle – but the system was sometimes dysfunctional, prohibiting the use of the car even with a buttoned belt.

As a result, the U.S. Center for Automotive Technology Research says the challenge for automakers will be to find an efficient, reliable yet inexpensive driver intoxication detection system to place it in millions of new cars. “I don’t think it will be as easy as people think,” said the center’s director, Carla Bailo, “because people will try to bypass it.”

But in addition to the credibility and efficiency of the system, American society, but also the American Social Rights Association – which is currently examining this technology – must first be convinced that ethical rules, such as the protection of sensitive personal data, are not violated. To ensure, in particular, that this data does not end up in the hands of the authorities or insurance companies.

According to Professor of Technology and Sociology at Stony Brook University, Wolf Schafer, “This is a political issue with ethical implications. Many accept that one should not drive drunk, and if he does that he is a delinquent. But, in this case, the car becomes the supervisor of your behavior. And if this refers to the principles, then there are serious problems. Privacy issues are real because sensors collect data, and what about that data is a question that lingers around everything – not just cars,” Schafer concluded.

This is a very difficult equation – legally, morally and technologically – but the tens of thousands of lives lost, serious injuries and disabilities resulting from drunk driving deserve a small proportion of the attention and huge investment of the car manufacturers, and their legal departments, in autonomous driving technologies.


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