Strassburger: A high-tech solution to the problem of drunk driving

This past week, law enforcement, first responders, engineers and other traffic safety advocates gathered here in Roanoke to discuss road safety in Virginia. It was easy to fill three days with discussions on emerging challenges and shared successes – but some of the biggest threats to road safety remain the familiar ones: including drunk driving.

The toll of alcohol-impaired driving remains agonizingly static both nationally and here in the Commonwealth. In fact, data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) shows that while overall fatalities in the Commonwealth were down in 2018, alcohol-related fatalities were on the rise; Virginia reported 278 alcohol-impaired driving deaths in 2018, compared with 248 fatalities in 2017. Drunk driving was responsible for more than 30 percent of Virginia’s total traffic fatalities last year, as well as more than 4,475 injuries. We refuse to let tragic statistics like these become the norm.

That’s why the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) Program – and the leading automakers that I represent through the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS) – are proud to partner with the Virginia DMV on the Driven to Protect Initiative. Driven to Protect is working to advance a first-of-its-kind technological solution to help end drunk driving: passive alcohol sensors with the ability to unobtrusively and precisely measure the blood alcohol level of a driver. If the sensor detects a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 or higher – the legal limit in the Commonwealth – the vehicle will start but not move. It is a game-changing idea that will provide a valuable new safety resource – whether you’re a parent looking out for your young driver or a manager of a company fleet hoping to reduce liability and keep your workers safe.

Through my role as the president and CEO of ACTS, I have been shepherding the alcohol detection technology as it has grown from an initial sketch on the back of a napkin to a working prototype. It was my great pleasure to see this prototype roll out for the first time on Virginia roads. Virginia was a natural fit to support the first in-vehicle tests of the DADSS technology, given its steadfast commitment to traffic safety and equally strong support for emerging technologies. We found a great partner in James River Transportation (JRT), a family-owned transportation company that has served Virginians for nearly 100 years. Beginning in August 2018, JRT drivers and fleet vehicles have helped the DADSS engineers get one step closer to making this technology road-ready by providing 43,342 miles, 4,217 operational hours, and 22,770 breath samples’ worth of data. Once the technology has met rigorous performance standards, it will be integrated into vehicles by automobile manufacturers and offered to consumers as an optional safety feature, similar to other driver assist systems such as automatic braking or lane departure warning.

Virginia is leading the nation with Driven to Protect and the effort to help finally solve the intractable problem of drunk driving. We’re excited for the future in which this technology is commercially available and seamlessly integrated into vehicles. Together, we can save lives and invent a world without drunk driving.

Strassburger is President and CEO of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety. Strassburger is also Vice President, Vehicle Safety & Harmonization for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Inc., a national trade association of twelve car and light truck manufacturers.