Last week, a judge in Santa Fe ruled that lawyer Carlos Fierro would have to stand trial for vehicular homicide. Police say Fierro struck and killed a pedestrian, William Tenorio, then sped away one night in November.
Fierro and his buddy, former State Police Sgt. Alfred Lovato, reportedly purchased 16 drinks at Rio Chama before moving on to WilLee’s, then climbed into Fierro’s BMW.
Imagine if Fierro had been driving a 2015 model. Before he turned the ignition, a beam of near-infrared light from the dashboard would have shone on his hand. A sensor would then estimate his blood-alcohol concentration by measuring the reflection of the beam and calculating how much of a certain wavelength of the light had been absorbed by his body.
If the car thought Fierro was drunk, it wouldn’t have started.
This is one of a new wave of technologies aimed at stopping drunk driving that could begin to be installed in American cars in four to six years.
There are many ways to stop drunk driving, beginning with designated drivers and public transportation. When those fail, technology can help. Last week, Gov. Bill Richardson’s office announced that drunk driving deaths in New Mexico have fallen 35 percent since 2002, with 143 traffic deaths involving alcohol last year.
That drop was widely credited to the 2003 New Mexico law requiring ignition interlocks for first-time drunk-driving offenders. If the auto industry is right, new technologies could save nearly 9,000 lives a year nationwide.
“Interlocks are almost antiquated,” state Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, says.
Last week, the Senate Public Affairs Committee passed a memorial introduced by Campos that urges the development of “non-invasive, seamless technology to measure driver blood alcohol content and reduce the incidence of drunk driving.”
Campos developed the memorial after speaking to auto-industry lobbyists and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, as well as survivors of the Gonzales family of Las Vegas, five of whom died in 2006 after being struck by a drunk driver.
The new technologies are already under development, via a five-year, $10 million cooperative research agreement between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and an industry group, the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety. Research work has fallen to Foster-Miller, Inc., a Boston-based company that makes chemical sensors for the oil industry and remote-controlled robots for the US military, among other marvels.
The potential new drunk-driving prevention tools come in four types, according to presentations by the government-industry project known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety.
The first type, tissue spectrometry, would work something like the scenario described above. A second technology, distant spectrometry, would shine a near-infrared or laser beam onto the driver for a similar estimation of blood-alcohol content. The lasers could be placed at various points around the driver’s seat—or even, some speculate, by police officers at sobriety checkpoints.
The third type of in-car sobriety test would use electrochemical measures—basically a more advanced version of the breathalyzers carried by patrol cops. Volvo offers such a device, the Alcoguard, in cars in Sweden. Another type of electrochemical device measures the alcohol in a person’s sweat. But it takes approximately an hour after consumption to obtain an accurate measurement—no match for a night of tequila shots.
The fourth and most Big Brotherly type of technologies are “behavior detection systems.” These might consist of special cameras that scan the driver’s eye movements, looking for drunken gazes, while an onboard computer monitors for erratic driving.
The industry sees some possible roadblocks to its designs. Chief among them is public buy-in. A 2007 AAA Foundation survey found only 37 percent of Americans support requiring alcohol-test equipment for all new drivers.
Privacy concerns don’t bother Campos. “These technologies aren’t requiring any information,” he says.
Even if these technologies work in the lab, they might face challenges in courtrooms. Proving drunkenness can be difficult—particularly if the driver hires a good lawyer—or already is one.