Our cars are getting smarter, and each year more safety options are available to new car buyers — from automatic emergency braking to rearview cameras and lane departure warnings.

With this safety revolution in mind, what if we could use technology to lessen the deadly impact of one of our nation’s most pervasive transportation and public health issues? What if we could invent a world without drunk driving?

That’s exactly what researchers at the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) Program are hoping to do. Through a public-private partnership between the federal government and the world’s leading automakers, engineers are researching a first-of-its-kind technology called the Alcohol Detection System that will detect when a driver is intoxicated with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above 0.08 and prevent that car from moving.

"A technology that passively detects a driver’s BAC level and is still small enough to be integrated into a vehicle has never been created before..."

Sensing impairment

To help bring the best technology to market, the DADSS research program has been developing and testing two technologies: a touch-based system that uses lasers to detect alcohol content under the skin’s surface and a breath-based system that passively measures the alcohol level in driver’s naturally exhaled breath using infrared light.

A technology that passively detects a driver’s BAC level and is still small enough to be integrated into a vehicle has never been created before, much less one that operates at the level of precision and accuracy that the program demands. Yet the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that if the DADSS technology is successful, more than 7,000 people could be saved each year, a significant decrease from where we are today.

Coming soon

As the technologies are becoming smaller, more compact and more easily mass-produced, researchers are subjecting them to a range of tests using a set of custom-designed test devices as well as human subject testing. In 2018, DADSS-equipped test cars will hit the road, gathering real-world data in different environmental conditions and with a range of different drivers.

One day, DADSS researchers aim to give all drivers the certainty they will not put themselves or others in danger by driving over the legal limit, as well as helping parents protect their kids as they begin driving themselves.

With 10,000 drunk driving deaths per year, it’s a day that can’t come soon enough.