Alcohol-sensing devices may be next safety step

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It is amazing to think how much safer our roads and highways have become over the past 50 years.

Most of the thanks for that goes to better-designed cars and highway systems that have made accidents much more survivable than decades ago.

With each new model, automakers seem to add standard equipment and options designed to save lives and make us better drivers.

Many vehicles now come with backup cameras that show clearly the area behind a vehicle as it moves in reverse. That view makes it much less likely we will run over a child on a tricycle.

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Honda Accords now come with a right-turn signal camera that gives a clear view of the area behind and to the right of a vehicle before changing lanes.

Many cars also come with lane-detection systems that sound when a car drifts across the white line on the right-hand side of roadways.

Other technology begins to apply the brakes when a car is approaching another object too quickly to stop, such as a pedestrian or another vehicle stopped in the road.

Some automakers are even experimenting with heat sensors that can “see” a deer or a moose on the road when a driver cannot.

That’s technology that saves lives and prevents injury.

One of the most exciting innovations on the horizon are devices that automatically sense whether an operator has had too much to drink.

Congress approved $5 million last year to help develop alcohol-sensing devices that can measure a driver’s blood-alcohol content and prevent a car from starting or running when the driver is legally drunk.

One type of technology would use tissue spectrometry to measure a driver’s BAC when he touches a steering wheel or start button.

The other type would use multiple sensors near the driver to reveal the alcohol concentrated in the driver’s breath.

Despite all of the good work done to eliminate drunk-driving accidents, such as tougher penalties and vivid public-service messages, some people continue to drive drunk.

While the statistics are not in for 2012, 39 people died in Maine in 2011 in alcohol-related accidents, about a third of all traffic deaths.

Countless other accidents and injuries were caused by people who were driving illegally but, fortunately, didn’t kill anyone.

Meanwhile, the detection, arrest and prosecution of people convicted of driving under the influence cost us all money in higher taxes and higher insurance rates.

While experts say effective alcohol-detection systems are a few years away, the idea of putting them in vehicles has already raised a red flag for America’s beverage industry.

Such devices might put an end to Americans having “a beer at a ball game or a glass of wine with dinner, ” Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute, told USA Today last June.

“Our main complaint is that such in-vehicle (devices) will not be set at 0.08,” the legal blood-alcohol threshold in all states. She said the lower rate would be necessary to stop drivers whose BAC rises after they take the wheel.

Clearly, stopping people from legally operating their vehicles would not be useful or well-received.

On the other hand, if these devices can be made reliable, we could eliminate about a third of the fatal accidents in the U.S.

That is a technology goal worth pursuing.

rrhoades@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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