In the future, your car might not start if you've had too much to drink.
Would that development give too much power to a machine, or justify it by saving lives?
The day for that policy decision may arrive sooner than you think.
The concept is called a Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety. Research is underway, with two promising approaches under consideration.
One would detect the alcohol content in the driver's breath, distinguishing his or her exhalations from those of other passengers.
A second requires the driver to press a finger against a monitoring device that can measure alcohol in blood just beneath the skin.
These may be futuristic technologies, but the toll in deaths, injuries and damage from drunk driving is so high that The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recommended in a new report that "Once the cost is on par with other existing automobile safety features and is demonstrated to be accurate and effective, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should make DADSS mandatory in all new vehicles."
The numbers are sobering. In 2016, the report says, 10,497 people were killed in alcohol-related automobile crashes in the United States. That's nearly equal to the number of people murdered by firearms — a pathology that draws much more attention.
Nevertheless, drinking-related tragedies are all too common. Last month in High Point, two high school students died after the vehicle they were riding in ran off the road and hit a tree. The 19-year-old at the wheel was charged with driving after consuming alcohol — and two counts of involuntary manslaughter.
A person younger than 21 is not allowed to drive after consuming any alcohol. For adults, the legal limit in North Carolina and most states of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content is too high, the academies say in their report. They want that level dropped to 0.05 percent, and they want "robust, visible enforcement efforts" — including more frequent sobriety checkpoints.
They call for the establishment of special DWI courts in every jurisdiction. Guilford County District Court was doing that last year to reduce a backlog but was forced to stop when the state drastically cut funding for emergency judges. Across North Carolina, many DWI cases are dismissed every year because of delays in returning lab tests or other problems. Because so many drunk drivers are repeat offenders, they will drive again unless strong and timely punitive action is taken. Our state can't commit the resources to accomplish that now. Does the political will exist to set up more sobriety checkpoints and enforce a stricter DWI standard?
The academies also recommend more alcohol treatment programs, more public awareness and greater efforts to stop underage drinking and sales of alcohol to people who already appear to have had too much.
They note that in 2015, 28 percent of alcohol-related car crashes were caused by drivers ages 21 to 25, so efforts aimed at encouraging more responsible behavior in that age group are warranted.
Other recommendations would be politically difficult to enact, such as significantly increasing alcohol taxes and limiting the hours and locations of alcohol availability. In our society, alcoholic beverages will remain widely accessible to people 21 and older, and the alcohol industry will use its considerable influence to oppose higher taxes.
When alcohol is abused, law enforcement and legal consequences should follow, but political leaders are reluctant to provide enough resources to maintain consistent efforts to catch and punish drunken drivers. So, as fanciful as it sounds, giving our cars the power of not starting when the driver has had too much to drink — and the emergence of self-driving vehicles — may provide the ultimate solution to this deadly problem.
REPRINTED FROM THE JACKSONVILLE DAILY NEWS