New tech takes aim at drunk driving

January 10, 2018


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It’s true – incidents of drinking and driving have decreased dramatically over the last few decades.  Since 1982, drunk-driving fatalities in the United States have decreased by more than half.

But the campaign against this social ill is far from won in the US. Despite decades of mass media campaigns targeting alcohol-impaired driving, Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates that around 10,500 are killed in alcohol-related accidents each year in the United States. And each and every boozy holiday season, the persistence of the problem really hits home, claiming a yearly average of 300 lives between Christmas and New Year’s over the last five years.

If public awareness campaigns still can’t always convince us to get a ride home, and as it turns out “friends do let friends drive drunk,” many organizations are wondering whether the technology on our smartphones might finally be what ensures we get home safe.

The notion that tech may save us from this persisting issue is not totally new. Ridesharing giant Uber has for years claimed to curb drunk driving – and in many cities it looks to be true.

Whereas in the past a steep taxi fare and the threat of getting your car towed the next morning may have helped convince a tipsy driver to risk it, the affordable ridesharing service has helped eliminate these incentives – at least in theory. The impact of the Uber phenomenon, however, appears to be unevenly felt in certain US cities.

Meanwhile, other tech companies have created apps to address the problem more directly. Startups BACtrack, Alcohoot, and Breathometer have pioneered apps and external devices that turn your smart phone into a Breathalyzer. The devices have been popular, though their accuracy has come under scrutiny – in Breathometer’s case, the company was forced to settle a lawsuit last year with the Federal Trade Commision pertaining to misleading claims about the device’s accuracy.

Israeli researchers developed, instead, a sort of ‘virtual breathalyzer’ – 93 percent accurate, they claim – that measures intoxication according to changes in your movement that are detected by the motion sensors built into your phone.

Still other firms have been at work developing wearable biosensors that measure blood alcohol levels. A team of engineers at the University of California, San Diego has even designed a temporary tattoo that monitors blood alcohol levels from sweat – the information is then sent to the person’s smartphone to let them know when they’re too drunk to drive.

And most recently, this sort of technology is being implemented into vehicles’ infotainment systems. GPS navigation app designer, Sygic, debuted at CES 2018 a new alcohol calculator feature that works seamlessly with Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system.

When heading home at night, the app will ask you if you’ve had any drinks. If the answer’s ‘yes,’ it’ll ask your sex, weight, the number of drinks you’ve had, and the time since your last drink. Based on these answers, the app will calculate your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and decide whether you’re safe to drive.

Sygic Automotive Product Manager, Francisc Juras

“Continuing our commitment to keeping roads safe, Sygic’s pioneering alcohol calculator feature will help confront the problem of alcohol-impaired drinking and driving – keeping drivers and others out of harm’s way,” says Sygic Automotive Product Manager, Francisc Juras.

What nearly all the tech developed thus far has in common, though, is that the apps and gadgets serve to make you aware if you’re intoxicated, and to advise you not to drive. But soon enough, many believe, our safety may not hinge on self-control.  Cars may one day communicate with smartphones to prevent an intoxicated driver from even starting their car. Or before then, some argue, self-driving cars will nearly eliminate the problem altogether.

Until then, good tech isn’t enough without good judgment.


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