It looks like the federal government may one day require you to take a sobriety test every time you start your car (from the Associated Press):
An alcohol-detection prototype that uses automatic sensors to instantly gauge a driver's fitness to be on the road has the potential to save thousands of lives, but could be as long as a decade away from everyday use in cars, federal officials and researchers said Friday.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited QinetiQ North America, a research and development facility based in Waltham, Mass., for the first public demonstration of systems that could measure whether a motorist has a blood alcohol content at or above the legal limit of 0.08 and -- if so -- prevent the vehicle from starting.
The technology is being designed as unobtrusive, unlike current alcohol ignition interlock systems often mandated by judges for convicted drunken drivers. Those require operators to blow into a breath-testing device before the car can operate.
My first instinct here was to criticize the idea. Not only would it add even more expense to the price of new cars, but it's more than a little bit eerily authoritarian to have to submit to a sobriety test every time you start your vehicle.
And there's a presumption of guilt there that I'm not 100 percent comfortable with, as if the only thing standing between me and plowing into another car in a drunken stupor is the benevolence of the federal government in subjecting me to a sobriety test.
But then I started thinking about it in terms of managing risk. There are plenty of doohickeys that are mandated in our vehicles to help reduce risk: turn signals help reduce the risk that we won't see a car turning into our lane until it's too late, seat belts help reduce the risk we'll sustain terrible injuries in an accident, and air bags help reduce the risk we'll be injured because we forgot to put on our seat belts.
The risk that someone will intentionally or inadvertently engage in drunken driving is another risk worth minimizing, especially if we can do so relatively painlessly. Despite the fact drunken driving awareness and enforcement are at really high levels, there are still people who habitually get behind the wheel of a car drunk and kill people -- 10,839 Americans in 2009 alone. And even if you had really good DUI, or driving under the influence, enforcement that allowed you to get every habitual drunken driver off the road, you'd still have drunken driving.
That's because it can sometimes be difficult even for responsible people to know when they've crossed the drunken-driving line. The simple rule of thumb that each drink raises your blood alcohol level 0.02 can certainly help, but so many factors affect how alcohol affects the human body: whether it's consumed on an empty stomach, your body weight and composition and even whether you're dehydrated.
And the feeling of intoxication is indisputably subjective. Do you feel that different at 0.06 percent blood alcohol content than at 0.08, the legal threshold beyond which you're committing a serious crime?
In that sense, an automatic sobriety test doesn't assume you're a habitual drunken driver, it assumes that knowing when you're OK to drive and when you need to call a cab can be pretty hard. If such a system saved you from accidentally driving once you've become a danger to yourself or others, or saved you the $10,000 it costs on average to deal with a DUI, wouldn't you be happy you had it?
On the other hand, it's hard to know where the cutoff will be set by regulators. Will it be at 0.08 percent, the standard for a DUI? Or will it be lower, to reflect the belief that driving is impaired at blood alcohol levels far below the legal limit? If it's the latter, you can probably say goodbye to a couple glasses of wine with dinner or the after-work beer.
What do you think? Does standard sobriety testing in every car cross a line, or is it a good idea?