A technological breakthrough that could virtually eliminate the drunken driving that kills 10,000 Americans each year was announced Thursday by federal officials, who said it could begin appearing in cars in five years.
The new equipment won’t require a driver to blow into a tube, like the interlock devices some states require after drunken-driving convictions. Instead, either a passive set of breath sensors or touch-sensitive contact points on a starter button or gear shift would immediately register the level of alcohol in the bloodstream.
Drivers who registered above the legal limit wouldn’t be able to start the car.
“The message today is not ‘Can we do this?’ but ‘How soon can we do this?’ ” said Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “It is a huge step forward.”
Eager to introduce an advance that would rival seat belts or air bags in saving lives, Rosekind said he would push to get the technology finalized, field tested and put into use before the five to eight years anticipated by researchers.
Though no cost-per-car estimate has been made, once the sensors go into general production it’s anticipated the cost will be equal to that of seat belts or air bags, about $150-$200 per vehicle.
Asked whether there would be a federal effort to mandate use of the devices in all new vehicles, Rosekind said he wasn’t sure that would be necessary.
“There’s not going to be a parent who isn’t going to want this in their child’s car,” he said. “There’s not going to be a business that’s not going to want this in their vehicles.”
NHTSA, safety advocates and automakers discussed whether the necessary technology was feasible for years. Researchers funded by auto manufacturers and federal safety regulators now have determined that it works.
They have developed passive sensors that detect how much a driver has had to drink, but are working on how best to package the sensors inside a vehicle. They have determined how to package touch-sensitive devices but still need to refine the technology to ensure accuracy.
“Touch-based could happen faster because we know how to package it,” said Rob Strassburger, head of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group for the world’s major auto companies.
The advances that lead to Thursday’s announcement at NHTSA headquarters were made at a Boston laboratory run by Bud Zaouk.
“These devices have to be quick, accurate and easy to use for the automakers to put them on their platforms,” Zaouk said.
The goal is to produce a device that will react in less than a second and function without maintenance for at least 10 years or 157,000 miles. Sensors that detect alcohol levels in the air can react in less than a second after a driver gets into the vehicle.
The technology is an offshoot of advances in sensory detection since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With sudden demand for bomb detection sensors, the ability of machines to scan people, packages and luggage for tiny trace elements has expanded exponentially.
The American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, opposes the alcohol detection system.
“Today, NHTSA, MADD, and major auto makers presented what they claim will be a voluntary system ... a description that directly contradicts their own past statements,” the organization said in a statement.
Though Rosekind said he didn’t think it would be necessary to make the system mandatory, he did not preclude that option. MADD is unambiguous in its belief that the system belongs in all vehicles.
In 2013, 10,076 people were killed in car crashes involving drunk drivers, federal data shows. That was less than half the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths recorded in 1982, when 21,113 people were killed. In the past 30 years, 401,404 people have died in drunken-driving crashes.
Colleen Sheehey-Church, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told an audience at NHTSA that included scores of her group’s members about the 2004 death of her son, who drowned in the back seat of a car driven into a river by a drunk driver.
“This is the future,” she said, gesturing toward a vehicle equipped with prototype detection gear, “when drunk drivers will be unable to drive their cars. If this technology was available in 2004, my son, Dustin, might be alive today.”