Most Americans are familiar with breathalyzers — devices commonly used by law enforcement to detect the blood-alcohol concentration level (BAC) of a driver. Although major legal repercussions hinge on the readings from these devices, rarely do people stop to question their accuracy.
The New York Times recently explored the reliability of breathalyzers and found the devices often relay false results. Not only is human error to blame, but the machines are delicate and require routine upkeep to remain accurate. The Times investigation uncovered that breathalyzers are often not calibrated and can register BAC levels up to 40 percent higher than the user’s actual degree of intoxication.
Now, some federal lawmakers want to force all Americans to not only use some version of this flawed technology, but rely on it.
Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, and Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Republican, recently unveiled the Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone Act of 2019 — or the RIDE Act for short. If passed, the legislation would require alcohol detection devices be installed in all new vehicles by 2024 as standard equipment; simply put, an engine won’t start if the system detects a certain level of alcohol in a driver’s blood stream.
The technology, known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, or DADSS, uses steering wheel sensors and other technology to measure the BAC of a driver more quickly and discreetly.
BAC measurements must be accurate up to one one-thousandth of a percent, or three decimal places. When car manufactures still have a difficult time keeping basic car batteries operating or various warning lights from giving off false positives, it’s not difficult to imagineintricate alcohol detection devices going haywire as well. Especially when the devices would be subject to extreme temperature shifts, rough road vibrations and a variety of confounding chemical factors.
Consider the following scenario. A woman meets her friends at a popular restaurant across town. They enjoy themselves by splitting a bottle of wine over dinner. When it’s time to head home, disaster strikes. Although the woman is well below 0.08 BAC — a level that is considered legal to drive — the alcohol detection device in her vehicle malfunctions and is tripped.
The engine won’t start and the woman has few reasonable options to get home.
Under the RIDE Act, this nightmare scenario will become more common. Incidents of inaccurate BAC readings are already a focus of concern when only used at traffic stops, as chronicled in The New York Times. Imagine how many false positives will occur once a BAC test is required every time someone hops behind the wheel.
Assuming that vehicles in the United States are started on average twice a day, the alcohol detection devices will be put to the test more than 325 million times daily. Even if they are “Six Sigma” — meaning the devices are accurate 99.999966 percent of the time — thousands of Americans will be stranded every day.
The RIDE Act is only one example of problematic legislating around alcohol and driving. Other instances are characterized by a disconnect between the problem and the solution.
Nowhere is this more apparent than efforts to lower the legal drunk driving limit by 40 percent from 0.08 to 0.05 BAC — a threshold many can hit after consuming little more than a single drink. Even though government and university research suggest someone is not meaningfully impaired at this level, the policy has been adopted in Utah and considered in several other states.
According to new data released last month, the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities continue to involve drivers with BACs of two to three times the current .08 limit. The problem clearly doesn’t originate with Americans who enjoy a drink over dinner. It’s puzzling why this is the group that is continually targeted.
Drunk driving remains a serious threat in the United States that needs to be addressed and technology can play a helpful role in fighting back. However, lawmakers shouldn’t jump the gun and force all Americans, even those who have had nothing to drink, to be victimized by imperfect gimmickry.
• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.