Drunk Driving Scheduled to Officially End by 2016


Future shock, a term popularized in the 1970s, was coined by futurist Alvin Toffler, who used this term to refer to the way technological change impacts individuals and society.  In a nut-shell, future shock is “too much change in too short a period of time”.

As it relates to drunk driving, it’s fair to say that technological advances are likely to eliminate it within a relatively short period of time.  In fact, according to a recent article in the Washington Post: “Researchers funded by auto manufacturers and federal safety regulators are working on sensory devices – to be installed as standard equipment on all new vehicles – that would keep a vehicle from starting if the driver has had too much to drink. We’re five to seven years away from being able to integrate this into cars.”

A technological solution to drunk driving has been proposed for many years, but until recently, the technology available has proved insufficient for mandatory and ubiquitous use.  Consider for example ignition interlock devices.  This technology requires that the driver blow into to start the car, then several times while the car is being operated.  While this is acceptable for people already convicted of drunk driving, it is not acceptable for those who have not.

In recognition of this problem, a great deal of effort, and money, has been spent trying to find a seamless way to incorporate technology; one that the driver will not even be aware is present.  The technology must also be fast and it must be accurate.  Each of these presents its own challenge but perhaps greatest among them is the requirement of accuracy.  The first question in this regard is: accurate to do what?  Estimate a driver’s BAC (bodily alcohol content) or to definitively discern it?

Another related and equally daunting problem with this sort of anti-drunk driving technology is determining at what level it will be set to trigger, thereby rendering the vehicle inoperable.  Every state in the union now has a .08 legal limit, so is this where we set the technology?  In other words, the car will operate if you have less than .08 grams of alcohol per whatever (breath, blood, something else) is being tested but not above?  Or should it be set at something lower, say .05?  And how exactly will this level be determined?

Then or course, there is the issue of population averages as it relates to the legal limit.  When we say someone has a .08 breath test result, what we mean is that the person has .08 grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.  Why 210 liters?  This is based on the way alcohol “partitions” in the breath and blood of the average human being, but not everyone’s blood partitions in this way, so if breath was being tested, some drivers with a .08 blood alcohol level would still be able to start their cars.  This situation demonstrates how human variability presents yet another challenge to anti-drunk driving technology.

So long as it is legal to drink and drive anti-drunk driving technology will continue to present significant challenges.  Yet, with all the money being thrown at this effort it’s a fair bet that the Washington Post is correct, and that drunk driving will be eliminated through the embedding of technology in all vehicles.  Based on the rate of technological change, this is likely to happen sooner than anyone now thinks.

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