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Sensors to combat DUI could be in cars in 5 years

| Thursday, June 4, 2015, 9:42 p.m.

WASHINGTON — 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 as a consequence of drunken-driving convictions. Instead, 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. “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 comparable to that of seat belts or air bags, about $150-$200.

Asked whether there would be a federal effort to mandate use of the devices in 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 have determined that it works.

They have developed passive sensors that detect how much a driver has had to drink and are working on how best to package the sensors inside a vehicle. They have determined how to package touch-sensitive devices but 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 led to Thursday's announcement at NHTSA headquarters were made in 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 once a driver gets into the vehicle.

The technology is an offshoot of advances in sensory detection since the 9/11 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.

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