(Source: DWI Blog)
Additional funding through the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 could make it a reality

A drunken driving program started by the government and the auto industry is in the midst of receiving extra funding which could lead to the development of an "anti-drunk driving" device. The device "sniff's" the driver's breath, uses light beams to detect alcohol content in human tissue, and will stop the vehicle from starting if any alcohol is present.

The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety program started in 2008 as a five-year program that began with $10 million in total funding. Currently, it operates on $2 million a year and is a cooperative effort by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which gives $1 million, while 13 automakers, 11 of which are Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers members, split the other $1 million. 

This $2 million a year could increase to $12 million if the Senate decides to add the program to the new Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010. The idea to provide extra funding to the program was presented in an amendment by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), who also proposed a similar standalone bill back in February.

The amendment proposes five years of $12 million annual funding, which will amount to $60 million total. The money will go directly to the program in order to support its goal of creating an in-car device that would stop those over the legal blood-alcohol limit from driving a car in an impaired state. Currently, the NHTSA and the automakers do not plan on making these devices mandatory, they're hoping that consumers will jump onboard with the idea of an alcohol interlock system in order to avoid any potential safety risks. 

According to Susan Ferguson, the program director for Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, the annual $2 million has been adequate up until this point, but due to the rising costs of technology, the additional money is becoming more and more vital to make these devices a reality. 

"We want a device that has to be invisible to the sober driver, the person under the legal limit," said Ferguson. "It has to be very fast, very accurate, highly reliable and precise. All those things will take a significant amount of money."

One problem this program could face is if consumers decide not to use the device, since it isn't mandatory. Despite the safety advantages and the importance of sober operation of a vehicle, many users may find the device inconvenient when the car doesn't start in certain situations. 

"The purpose of the NHTSA is not to manufacture and develop air bags or seat belts or drunk-driving devices," said Joan Claybrook, a member of the board of directors at Public Citizen and former head of the safety agency. "NHTSA's role is of a regulator."

But consumers and many different groups, such as Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Safety Council, are supportive of the idea. According to a survey that the Insurance Institute conducted last year, which consisted of 1,004 people (two-thirds of which consume alcohol), 64 percent indicated it would be "good" or "very good" to have alcohol detection devices in all vehicles. 

"I think it is equivalent to the next seat belt," said Ferguson, who used to be a top researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "It could make a huge difference in highway safety."

Another problem that is worrying safety advocates is that the $60 million could cut the amount of money set aside to make the NHTSA "more effective." Approximately $140 million a year is given to the federal safety agency for vehicle safety, and the plan – before the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety was added to the bill -- was to increase this amount to $200 million in fiscal year 2011, $240 million in 2012, and $280 million in 2013. 

This decision is to be made by the Senate's appropriations committee, but Amber McDowell, a spokeswoman for Udall, said that Udall wanted this program to be funded separately, hence, it would not affect the money planned for the safety agency. 

As far as rights of the device goes, the NHTSA and the automakers both have rights to the technology under the current five-year, $10 million program. The figures show that devices, such as the one this program could develop, could save approximately 8,000-9,000 lives a year. According to federal records, 12,000 people died in alcohol-related accidents in 2008, so these devices could prevent over 60 percent of these fatalities.

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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