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Congress Considers Funding for In-Car Alcohol Detection System

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Congress Considers Funding for In-Car Alcohol Detection System


A government-auto industry program that is trying to develop a device to detect drunken drivers, which would be installed in all new vehicles, is on track to get a six-fold increase in funding.

The device, which would automatically sniff the driver’s breath or use a light beam to test the alcohol content of tissue, would prevent drunken operators from starting the vehicle. There is no plan for the device to be mandatory. Those working on the project hope consumers will accept the alcohol interlock voluntarily because of the safety advantages.

The program has been operating on $2 million a year, but that would increase to $12 million a year after it was added to the new Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, which is awaiting consideration by the Senate.

The act stemmed from Congressional hearings earlier this year on Toyota recalls. Those hearings led some senators to conclude that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lacks the resources and expertise to investigate complex, electronic problems and the clout to make automakers more responsive.

The idea of extra funding for the drunken-driving program came in an amendment introduced by Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico. In February, he had introduced a similar proposal as a standalone bill.

The amendment calls for five years of funding at $12 million a year, for a total of $60 million. That money will go to the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety program. That is a cooperative effort among N.H.T.S.A. and 13 automakers, 11 of which are members of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group.

It started early in 2008 as a five-year program with $10 million in funding. Each year N.H.T.S.A. was to provide $1 million and the 13 automakers were to split the other $1 million and provide some technical advice.

The program’s goal is to develop a device that would prevent someone over the legal blood-alcohol limit from starting a vehicle. Under the arrangement, the supporting automakers would have the right to any successful technology.

So far the $2 million-a-year funding has been adequate, said Susan Ferguson, program director for Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety. But, she said, advanced technology is expensive and the additional money, which Mothers Against Drunk Driving has been seeking from Congress, is important.

“We want a device that has to be invisible to the sober driver, the person under the legal limit. It has to be very fast, very accurate, highly reliable and precise,” she said. “All those things will take a significant amount of money.”

Other advocates of the funding increase include the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research organization funded by auto insurers; the National Safety Council, and a former N.H.T.S.A. administrator, Jeffrey Runge.

In 2008, almost 12,000 people died in “alcohol-impaired” crashes, according to federal records. In a statement Mr. Udall said “drunk driving is a completely preventable tragedy that destroys thousands of lives each year in the United States.”

Those who favor the devices say when they are in all vehicles they could save 8,000 to 9,000 lives a year by stopping drunks before they get on the road.

“I think it is equivalent to the next seat belt,” said Ms. Ferguson, formerly a top researcher at the insurance institute. “It could make a huge difference in highway safety,”

One question that worries some safety advocates is whether the proposed $60 million will reduce the amount of money intended to make N.H.T.S.A. more effective.

The federal safety agency gets about $140 million a year for vehicle safety, including investigations and enforcement. The original plan was to increase that to $200 million in fiscal year 2011; $240 million in fiscal 2012 and $280 million in fiscal 2013.

But that was before the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety funding amendment became part of the bill.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation originally worked on the bill. In a letter to the committee, two safety watchdog groups, Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety, worried that the $60 million amendment had no meaningful review, no details on why that much money was needed and it could divert money from N.H.T.S.A.

Amber McDowell, a spokeswoman for Mr. Udall, said he wanted the project to be funded separately so it would not reduce the money planned for the safety agency. But that decision will be made by the Senate’s appropriations committee, she said.

Even if that $60 million cuts into the money originally planned to improve N.H.T.S.A., that is O.K. because the possible safety benefit of the drunken-driving effort is so great, said Robert Strassburger, the vice president for vehicle safety at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers who is working on the alcohol detection project.

Other questions raised by Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety involve ownership of the rights to a device developed with federal funds, and whether the automakers would match the $60 million in federal funds.

Under the current $10 million, five-year program, the participating automakers and N.H.T.S.A. would each have the right to the technology, Mr. Strassburger said.

He said there have not been any discussion about whether the automakers would provide matching funds.

Regardless of the amount of money, the idea of a federal agency developing a device with automakers that they can sell back to consumers is wrong, said Joan Claybrook, a member of the board of directors at Public Citizen and former head of the safety agency.

“The purpose of N.H.T.S.A. is not to manufacture and develop air bags or seat belts or drunk-driving devices,” she said. “N.H.T.S.A’s role is of a regulator.”

But Mr. Strassburger of the automakers alliance said he sees nothing wrong with the federal government contributing money for the development of such a device because drunken driving is a big problem.

A spokeswoman for the safety agency had no comment. However, the agency has made it clear it sees drunken driving as a serious problem.

The system envisioned by the alcohol detection system program would be nothing like those that require a convicted, drunken driver to breathe into a tube. Instead the program’s goal is a system that is automatic and does not impede drivers who are not legally drunk.

Mr. Strassberger said the project is going well, but it could be eight or 10 years before there is a system available.

A major question for the project is whether the public would voluntarily accept – and possibly pay extra for – such a system. Last year the insurance institute surveyed 1,004 people — two-thirds of whom drink alcohol — and found support for such devices. Having alcohol detection devices in all vehicles was seen as a “good” or “very good” idea by 64 percent. Thirty percent said it was a bad idea for reasons including privacy concerns and governmental interference.



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I DON'T drink & drive but I'm sittin on this fence. The next move will be all new cars must be included as standard equipment then mandatory instillation into all cars in service. Giv em an inch and they'll take a kilometer. :alcoholic:

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