Autonomous Cars Might End Drunk Driving, but It Is up to Drivers Until Then

Person drinking alcohol while sitting on the driver's seat in a vehicle and holding the steering wheel (this is against the law in many countries, btw) 7 photos
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Car CrashMan Facing HeadlightsCar CrashCar CrashCar CrashDrunk Driving Warning
Congress wants to improve vehicle safety in the U.S. and reduce road fatalities, and one of the ways this is meant to be achieved is a new $1 trillion infrastructure package that is expected to be signed by President Joe Biden. The new legislation would make vehicle manufacturers involved in stopping drunk driving.
Instead of going through it all (it is already covered in another story), let us focus for a bit on the drunk/impaired driving part. According to the NHTSA, about 10,000 people are killed each year in alcohol-related crashes in the U.S., which make up for up to 30 percent of all traffic fatalities.

The latest proposal involves getting vehicle manufacturers to install new systems or configure an existing system in new models sold starting 2026 to have a way to monitor driving to prevent intoxicated drivers from causing an accident. While the proposed legislation sounds like a good idea, it is still unclear what the best technical solution will be for this to happen.

Currently, convicted drunken drivers must use breathalyzer devices linked to an ignition interlock to start their vehicles each time they use them. The court-appointed system exists in the U.S. and in other countries. It involves blowing into a tube to check the driver's blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

Now, it is believed that new systems, such as infrared cameras meant to monitor driver attentiveness and behavior, currently employed as a safety measure for Level 2 and Level 3 autonomous driving features/driver assistance technologies, could be the solution to the problem.

The infrared sensors placed in the gauge cluster of some modern cars can be used to determine if the driver shows signs of impairment, drowsiness, or loss of consciousness.

Depending on how advanced the vehicle is, some can safely slow down, pull over, and call emergency services to help the driver. If you ask us, the latter part could work if the vehicle's breathalyzer “smells” booze, or if the driver has signs of impairment in one way or another.

Sadly, the introduction of these systems will not stop drunk driving in the U.S. or in any other country in the world. At the end of the day, the best possible thing that could happen lies in each country's educational system.

Car Crash
Photo: Ian Valerio/Unsplash
We need teachers and educators to provide compelling explanations as to why driving after drinking or getting into a car with a drunk driver is the dumbest thing you can do. At the same time, the only way to stop people from driving drunk is to let them know that police officers will be waiting down the road with breathalyzers.

With the two proposed measures put together, drunk driving can be curbed significantly, but it will take years for the education part to change things, while the part with the police would work a bit faster.

Unfortunately, no country has enough police officers to check drivers that frequently, so new tech must be developed to allow screening drivers without even pulling them over.

Such technology already exists, but it is not deployed on a wide scale due to costs, privacy issues, and questions about its effectiveness. Meanwhile, approximately 10,000 people (about the seating capacity of Cameron basketball stadium at Duke University) get killed in the U.S. each year because of drunk drivers.

This is the part where autonomous vehicles come in. While a Level 5 autonomous system would be perfect here, as it does not even involve a steering wheel and a set of pedals in the vehicle (drunk people could do crazy things with those), even a Level 4 system could "do the trick."

Just imagine that all the people who would drive after drinking could just let their vehicles drive for them. Or, better yet, they could just order an autonomous taxi to get home safely. The latter technology already exists, and it works just fine in non-autonomous form, even though it does raise some safety concerns for some users.

So, instead of making vehicle manufacturers develops all kinds of systems to check if the drivers of the cars they sell are drunk or impaired in any way and stop them from operating them, how about legislating autonomous vehicles and robotaxis so that these systems would no longer be necessary across the country (or the world, for that matter)?

Car Crash
Photo: Matt Chesin/Unsplash
As I have written in another article on autoevolution, there are laws to prevent this, and there are people employed to make sure that others do not break those laws. It is also their job to act within the law if and when someone does break those laws. Those people work in law enforcement.

But autonomous cars might provide a different solution to the problem. One that would allow people to show up in their cars to a party and leave with their cars, but driven by the computers embedded in those vehicles from the factory.

Until that becomes a reality, sadly, about 10,000 people will be killed in car accidents in 2021 in the U.S. alone, and it will all be because of drunk drivers. It is definitely a waste, and it will sadly continue to happen until people stop getting behind the wheel after drinking. With that being written, time for some drunk-driving public service announcements from various countries.

If you are old enough to drive and old enough to drink, you are old enough to know better than to drink and drive. Remember that it is a matter of choice: you either drink or drive, never both.

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About the author: Sebastian Toma
Sebastian Toma profile photo

Sebastian's love for cars began at a young age. Little did he know that a career would emerge from this passion (and that it would not, sadly, involve being a professional racecar driver). In over fourteen years, he got behind the wheel of several hundred vehicles and in the offices of the most important car publications in his homeland.
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