System has a number of potential pitfalls, but shows promising results

A new journal article by researchers from Poland's Wojskowa Akademia Techniczna (WAT; translates to "Military University of Technology") showcases an interesting roadside sensor that could revolutionize law enforcement if it can be made more accurate and more consistent.

We've seen system-on-a-chip (SoC) microfluidic laboratories that "sniff" for the presence of alcohol and other drugs.  Such sensors are already becoming commercially available, and have been deployed in traffic studies and at key security points across the U.S.

The new paper describes using a 2 mW red laser to detect the presence of intoxicated drivers.  The setup involves shooting the laser beam through the cabin, reflecting it off a mirror (positioned presumably in the road's median) and finally detecting it on a receiver setup attached to the pilot laser.

Alcohol laser monitoring
[Image Source: WAT/J. Appl. Remote Sens.]

Because the light passes through the cabin twice, it is sufficient to detect BAC levels of as little as 0.1, which manifest themself as vaporized ethanol, which modifies the laser beam's path.

The paper's results are promising and pretty impressive.  Also, the entire system is relatively affordable, made from off-the-shelf electronics parts.

Alcohol laser detection
[Image Source: WAT/J. Appl. Remote Sens.]
However, we likely won't see this technology implemented on the road for some time, given a number of inherent difficulties.  

First, the setup would likely be plagued by false positives in the case of a designated driver transporting intoxicating passengers.  While that shortcoming would be nullified in the case of a solo driver, the system could also be foiled by window tints or coatings.  Last, but not least, if the system is able to detect such a low concentration of cabin ethanol, it might trigger with false positives for vehicles with certain kinds of air fresheners, some of which are alcohol-based, chemically speaking.

The paper comes at interesting timing, given the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) campaign to lower the national U.S. drunk driving threshold from 0.08 BAC to 0.05 BAC.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has an equally controversial proposal to install interlocks on all first-time drunk drivers' cars, with taxpayers footing the bill for free interlocks for impoverished drunk drivers.

Eventually this kind of device might see deployment as a sort of backup piece of evidence, to be used in conjunction with other forms of sobriety testing.  In that regard it could be viewed as a somewhat more finnicky peer of the roadway digital traffic cameras, which have been deployed across much of the U.S.

The paper was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Remote Sensing.

Sources: Journal of Applied Remote Sensing, via PopSci

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