U.S. Senators Rick Scott (R-FL) and Tom Udall (D-NM) are planning to propose new legislation mandating that automakers install hardware designed to stop drunk drivers from operating their vehicles and preventing thousands of drunk-driving-related accidents, injuries, and deaths. They plan to have this accomplished by the mid-2020’s. This bill is similar to one introduced by Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI) that seeks to accomplish the same goals by 2024.
While their goal is to curb intoxicated people from driving—something that we all want—privacy concerns arise.
In the beginning
Initially, ignition interlock devices (IID) were the epitome of technology in fighting drunk drivers. With these devices, the driver must blow into a tube that identifies whether s/he has consumed any alcohol and would be unfit to drive. If s/he doesn’t pass, then the vehicle won’t start. However, these systems are rather antiquated and can be bypassed quite easily simply by having a sober person blow into the tube.
With new technology comes new opportunities to invade people’s privacy. There is and there will always be a trade-off between effectiveness and invasiveness. Increasingly sophisticated technology enables monitoring blood alcohol concentration (BAC) simply by drivers touching the steering wheel or the engine start button. Additionally, on-board sensors and cameras are now able to passively monitor a motorist’s breath, posture, eye movements, and erratic driving behavior.
Volvo has already implemented some of these devices, but other automobile manufacturers may soon be legally required to do the same.
Privacy advocates say this has gone too far and also shifts the US court system’s “innocent until proven guilty” into “guilty until proven innocent.” Further, collected data will go to motorists’ insurance companies, thus likely raising premiums and rates.
Privacy advocates say the potential benefit of saving thousands of lives just isn’t worth trampling the privacy rights of the millions of sober people on the road.
Since 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has invested nearly $50 million in a joint project with Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety to create the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety—a device in vehicles that can detect alcohol without the driver having to do anything. At the present time, developers have managed to create a better, more streamlined breathalyzer that attaches to the driver’s door. They are also working to develop devices that don’t simply detect the presence of alcohol but the actual BAC.
Those states that have mandated inclusion of ignition interlock or other anti-DWI technology have reported steep decreases—as much as 77% in places like West Virginia—in drunk driving recidivism after requiring that first-time DWI offenders install IIDs in their vehicles. And in Michigan, a university study estimated that IIDs installed in every new vehicle in the US could cut drunk driving fatalities by a whopping 85% over 15 years.
Proponents of mandating anti-DWI systems and devices in all cars also stress that these devices could also play a big role in identifying and preventing drugged driving as well. Yet the bottom line remains, and that is how much of a compelling government interest justifies infringing on people’s rights.