Police have long loathed traditional breathalyzer tests for the same reason that doctors tired of oral thermometers—sticking objects into the human mouth requires worrying about sanitation and discarding used devices.
Of course, the alternative to a roadside breath test, which requires using a needle to extract blood from a DUI suspect, is even more invasive and raises more serious health concerns.
In response to the disadvantages posed by these methods, two companies are developing a device that check drivers’ blood alcohol levels by simply touching their skin.
According to an article in USA Today, Takata, a Japanese company with a U.S. office in Michigan, and TruTouch a New Mexico-based corporation, are trying to make touch devices commercially viable using a $2 million grant from the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety.
In its current stage of development, the device, which is roughly the size of a breadbox, uses an infrared sensor to determine whether a driver is intoxicated.
Eventually, the company plans to scale the device down so it becomes small enough to place on a car’s start button, preventing would-be drunk drivers from ever firing up the engine.
The companies plan to sell the device for roughly $200, and with the goal of having the touch button replace the cumbersome ignition interlock device that DUI offenders sometimes have to use before starting their cars.
The companies say the device may even be hidden, or unknown to drivers, which will likely raise concerns from advocates worried about preserving personal liberties.
Despite the potential for such disputes, experts say most drivers will have to voluntarily agree to the installation of the device, and it will certainly be easier than having to repeatedly blow into a tube, provided that the technology actually works.
While the two companies are optimistic about the device’s commercial readiness, there remain a few hurdles to make the tool more sturdy and reliable.
With the grant money, the companies are looking to reduce the tool’s processing time from several seconds to just a few hundred milliseconds. In addition, the tool only works at room temperature in its current condition, so scientists are working to modify it for operation in more extreme temperatures.
There is increasing demand for better-designed blood alcohol tests in the United States, which saw almost 11,000 people die in drunk driving accidents in 2009 alone.
According to sources, deaths caused by drunk driving account for almost a third of all driving fatalities each year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has praised the work of Takata and TruTouch, claiming in a statement that the new technology signals a “new frontier in in the fight against drunk driving.”
A program director for the Driver Alcohol Detention System for Safety, Susan Ferguson, believes that this frontier will soon be breached.
By her estimation, the touch-activated device will be on the market within the next 10 years.