US accident investigators want alcohol breathalyzers in all new vehicles

No need to blow into a tube, this passive tech will automatically hit the brakes if you're drunk

A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) crash investigation has concluded with potentially wide-reaching implications for the auto industry, as the panel is recommending all new vehicles be equipped with technology that stops the engine if a drunk driver is at the wheel.

The NTSB cited the severe effects alcohol and speed had on the accident it was investigating, adding that one in three traffic fatalities on US roads involve alcohol and that impaired driving crashes have increased in the past few years.

From that, the American agency concludes that it's time to install hardware in cars that can passively detect whether a driver is intoxicated and likely unable to safely drive, based on breath and touch, and take action if necessary – such as stopping or limiting the vehicle.

"We recommended that [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] NHTSA require that all new vehicles be equipped with passive vehicle-integrated alcohol impairment detection systems, advanced driver monitoring systems, or a combination thereof," the NTSB said. 

DADSS to the rescue – slowly

The NHTSA and Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS) have been working on developing a driver alcohol detection system for safety (DADSS) since 2008 when the pair formed the DADSS program.

Since then, the group has worked to develop the two aforementioned passive alcohol detection systems – breath and touch – but so far progress has been slow. Per NTSB's report [PDF], DADSS had planned to have to have a prototype in vehicles by 2013, but "neither the breath-based nor the touch-based systems have yet reached the stage where they can be evaluated against all the DADSS specifications." 

The NTSB is also calling for the adoption of intelligent speed adaptation technology that would limit vehicle speeds in certain circumstances ‒ like, if you're going well over the limit of the road – as well as the driver monitoring tech that could pick up on intoxicated behavior behind the wheel. 

To be clear, the NTSB is calling for, and DADSS has been developing, alcohol impairment detection systems that are different from the tech that is currently be found in vehicles. In cases of multiple DUI convictions, court orders can require an active key ignition interlock be installed in cars that force the operator to blow into a tube to verify their blood alcohol content (BAC) level is below the legal limit before the vehicle will start.

Because DADSS' new systems are passive, meaning the driver doesn't need to take any action for them to work, there are several hurdles both the program and the NHTSA have to jump to get them road ready. 

In the case of breath-based detection, spectrometry is used to measure alcohol concentration in a driver's exhaled breath. DADSS' standards require the system be able to accurately detect BAC despite the presence of passengers, whether or not windows are open, as well accurately distinguish between mouthwash and other alcohol-containing products. 

"Researchers have reported that the development team has identified a passive breath alcohol detector with high sensitivity, but it is not currently available in mass quantities," the NTSB said. 

The touch system also uses spectrometry to detect BAC based on alcohol concentration on a driver's skin. NTSB said the sensors would be integrated into push button ignitions on vehicles and would prevent the car from starting if the driver exceeds a predetermined BAC. 

Touch-based systems have a tech problem too: DADSS are having a hard time getting them shrunk down to the point that they'll work in a vehicle without sacrificing accuracy, precision and speed. 

In its report, the NTSB said that NHTSA and ACTS believe a passive breath-based DADSS system will be ready for commercial licensing in 2024, meaning that "a passive breath-based system would most likely not be available for non-fleet passenger vehicles until 2026."

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said the nine-fatality accident leading to the NTSB's push for anti-drunk driver technology should serve as a wakeup call to accelerate development and implementation of DADSS technology. 

"​Technology could've prevented this heartbreaking crash — just as it can prevent the tens of thousands of fatalities from impaired-driving and speeding-related crashes we see in the U.S. annually," Homendy said. ®

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