Cover Story: High-tech stop to driving drunk

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It is the big brother version of the breathalyzer test?  Any car on the road - any time of day - any time you get behind the wheel.  All drivers could be required to blow to prove their sobriety.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD says it could put an end to drunk driving.  Others say it's a serious step toward a police state, an invasion of privacy.

What's being proposed would start the country on a path to exploring having the technology in cars in five-to-eight years.

The goal is to end drunk driving in our lifetime, but is it another example of Big Brother intruding?

Three decades ago MADD Mothers Against Drunk Driving started a movement to get laws stiffened to throw the book at drunk drivers.

Since the group was founded in 1980 drunk driving deaths in the U.S. have been reduced by half, now to about 10,800 a year.

In the last decade or so that number has stayed pretty consistent which is why the group is now turning its attention to legislation that is research-driven.

MADD's National President-Elect Jan Withers says it could yield incredible results.

"This literally.. this advanced technology that is being researched.. really can become the cure for drunk driving. We will see the end of drunk driving in our lifetime actually."

The technology already exists that keeps impaired drivers from driving.

In some cases the courts require people who've been convicted of drunk driving have installed on their car a device that they must blow into that keeps the car from going if there's any alcohol in their system.

The technology MADD is supporting would be non-invasive.

One is Breath-Based:  Sensors installed inside the car would detect only the driver's blood alcohol concentration and when it goes above .08 BAC, the legal limit, the car wouldn't run.

A second is Touch-Based:  Requiring the driver to touch a steering wheel or engine-start button before the car will drive.

The goal is to end drunk driving.  MADD says 8,000 lives could be saved each year.

If the technology can be perfected supporters hope whichever method emerges would be an option on cars by 2018.

MADD likens it to air bags and seat belts which started out as options now are standard.

Mike Daisley, a Charlotte attorney who represents people injured by drunk drivers, says there's a big difference.

"All those other safety features whether it be seat belts or safety bags that doesn't prevent you from getting from point A to point B. This will from my understanding will prevent you from starting your car if somehow you fail the test," says Daisley.

Monday in Asheville, Rep. Heath Shuler (D) North Carolina threw his support behind the bill MADD is trying to get passed in Congress.

It calls for funding research into the two technologies.  Spending $12 million annually for five years from money now used to encourage seat belt use.

Sponsors believe they have public support.  They point to a survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that found 74-percent of Americans think it's a good idea.

What the device would cost in cars is unknown at this point.

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