WASHINGTON — There are already sensors to help drivers park cars and safely change lanes. Now, a new sensor being tested in Virginia aims to stop drunken drivers from getting on the road.
It looks like a small air vent that is affixed to the dashboard in front of the driver and works differently than well-known engine interlock devices and breathalyzer machines.
“The concept behind it is you get into the car and you’re breathing normally — you’re not providing a forced exhalation,” said Bud Zaouk, with KEA Technologies and the program manager of the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety program.
The non-obtrusive device will measure the driver’s blood alcohol level and, if it is the legal limit of 0.08 or higher, the car will start but the driver won’t be able to move it. In contrast to current interlock devices that don’t allow the car to turn on, this new device will allow the driver to turn on the car so they can charge their phone to call a cab or order a ride-hailing service to get home.
The piece of technology is one of the new devices being tested in the Driven to Protect public-private partnership in Virginia. The partnership comes as Virginia becomes the first state to team up with a national program known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety. Also involved in the partnership are the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and more than a dozen automobile manufacturers.
The partnership has a focus on testing new devices, which it hopes will ultimately prevent drinking and driving crashes.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Monday in Richmond the state’s participation in the program, making Virginia the first real-world testing ground for the device.
“There are too many individuals on our highways, no doubt, who are impaired,” Northam said.
In 2017, 248 people died in DUI crashes in Virginia, and more than 4,000 were injured.
Zaouk said the program welcomes other fleet operators to contact them about being testing grounds for the device.
Once fully developed and available, Zaouk believes it won’t only be heavy drinkers who decide to install the devices in their cars. “We see that our first adopters are going to be parents with teen drivers,” Zaouk said.
All those involved aim to make the device one of the many options a person can choose when they buy a new car.
“This is fantastic opportunity for Virginia; this is going to help save lives in the state, and I am hoping others will follow suit,” Zaouk said.