By the Blouin News Technology staff

FEATURE: How tech can prevent driving deaths

by in Personal Tech.

Getty Images

Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that almost 30 people in the United States die every day in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver, amounting to one death every 51 minutes. The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes totals more than $59 billion, and in 2013 alone, 10,076 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the U.S. For years, technology has been regarded as a potential way to reduce drunk driving — now innovations throughout the world are showing they can also ensure safety for those threatened by inebriated drivers.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that 46 new security cameras had been installed at the Kyobashi station in Osaka; they will automatically search for signs of intoxication and alert attendants if necessary as part of West Japan Railway’s efforts to prevent accidents. The report notes that in the 12-month period beginning in April 2013, there were 221 cases in which passengers on platforms were hit by trains and 60% of those hit were drunk at the time. While not driver-related, the cameras are another way Japan is aiming to curb intoxication-related deaths. In early August, Nissan announced that it is working on various technologies designed to detect the driver’s state of sobriety and activate a range of measures including immobilization of the vehicle to prevent drunk driving, i.e., alcohol odor sensors, facial monitoring systems, and driving behavior monitors.

In-car technology to prevent drivers from operating cars while intoxicated has been moving in the U.S. for years now, but has only recently gained traction for mainstream use. Guardian Interlock, for example, is working on a breathalyzer attached to a car’s ignition. While such technology is expensive and seems like a hard sell to a driver who has a significant problem with drinking and driving (especially considering the driver would have to voluntarily shell out hundreds of dollars for its installation), some legislators in the U.S. are hoping to make this kind of tech more accessible, less expensive, and obligatory for those who have been convicted of DUIs or DWIs. This summer, Senator Chuck Schumer from New York revealed his plan to co-sponsor a bill to fund DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety) technology that would work by including sensors in cars with touch or non-invasive breath technology, which can detect when a driver is over the legal alcohol limit and prevent the car from moving. Schumer’s proposed bill would authorize $48 million over six years.

App developers have been keen on making anti-drunk driving technology more accessible and usable for those with mobile devices as well. Alcohoot uses a dongle that attaches to the headphone port of a smartphone and can be used as a breathalyzer. Indeed, many of the apps available for calculating whether or not one is able to drive a car employ dongles to tally blood alcohol content (BAC). Ones that don’t require extra hardware include ENDUI, which was released by Maryland state officials late last year. The app provides a lifeline to people considering drinking and driving, notably by helping users find cabs and creating a shortlist of friends who could be called as designated drivers. It also estimates BAC by asking the user to plug in weight, gender, and number of drinks consumed. Of course, the challenge lies in getting people to use these apps properly and/or purchase the hardware required.

Driverless cars are at the center of this issue as well — many argue that removing human influence over vehicle operation entirely is the panacea for drunk driving. While current laws of vehicle operation still apply to those testing driverless cars — as in, a “driver” cannot drink while operating the vehicle — the absence of human error encourages the thought that there would be fewer drunk driving related accidents if humans were not the ones turning the wheel.

Software is also developing to prevent drivers from operating vehicles while they are under the influence of marijuana. As more and more states in the U.S. legalize restricted usage of the drug, proponents are working to ensure its safe usage. In June, a group dedicated to legalizing marijuana dubbed NORML announced an iPhone app designed to prevent stoned driving called Canary. The app runs the user through a number of tests that involve memory, balance, and other functions that are impaired by marijuana use. Remembering a sequence of numbers, balancing on one foot, playing a digital whack-a-mole game, and estimating a time period of 20 seconds are some of the challenges, the results of which are then compared to a personal baseline or a collective average. Users receive a green, yellow, or red light assessing their levels of functioning.

As this technology makes its way into the hands and cars of general users, one can only hope that a ripple effect will occur and the figures from the C.D.C. will lower as the years go on.