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Dave Ross
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A system being developed for vehicles would enable only non-drinking drivers to get behind the wheel. (AP Photo/File)

DUI technology in development could keep future drunk drivers off the road

It's a perennial problem. How do you keep drunks off the road?

We've tried all sorts of things: We arrest them when we see them, we call 911, and there are ignition interlock devices for those who have already offended.

But wouldn't it be great if you had a car that knew the moment a drunk got behind the wheel? Essentially, it would be the car that takes the keys away. That's what Russ Rader, the Sr. Vice President for Communication with the Institute of Highway Safety, says is being developed by private automakers and the federal government.

It's a passive system - not something someone would breathe into - like an ignition interlock device.

Rader says they've been working on different systems, light detection through the skin, a smart steering wheel that knows if you've been drinking, or a system that is ambient in the air. All would be able to identify if the driver had a blood alcohol content level above .08.

"If you are at a level that is illegal for driving in the state, you would not be able to start the car and instead of trying to catch drunk drivers on the road - this would be the 'holy grail' that would stop an impaired driver from ever starting the car," says Rader.

But a system that detects whether the driver is drunk, simply by being in the air seems like it could be problem, particularly if you were a sober driver with a passenger who had been drinking.

"Some of the other technological solutions probably have more promise," admits Rader. "(Like) probably trying to detect alcohol through the skin, when someone touches part of the vehicle, like the steering wheel. These are systems that companies have developed, but they need to be perfected because you can't have something that stops a non-drinking driver from starting the car."

There's no price tag yet on what a system like this may cost to install in every vehicle. But there could be some cost benefits if a large portion of drunk drivers were kept off the road - auto insurance rates could down for everybody.

Rader says he thinks the price tag won't be bad. "At a small cost, we could add this on all vehicles on the road, like airbags or seat belts, or all the things we take for granted today. And if it allows for a loved one to come home who might have otherwise been killed in crash - it may be worth it."

MyNorthwest.com's Alyssa Kleven contributed to this report.

Dave Ross, KIRO Radio Morning News Anchor
Dave Ross hosts the Morning News on KIRO Radio weekdays from 5-9 a.m. Dave has won the national Edward R. Murrow Award for writing five times since he started at KIRO Radio in 1978.
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