ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You're out to eat and have had a few glasses of wine and wonder if you're over the legal limit. In the not too distant future, vehicles might come with an option that would prevent drivers from hitting the road if they're legally drunk.
Unlike traditional ignition interlock devices that are installed after drivers in some states are convicted of DWI, the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety would be available as an option on new cars, like satellite radio or vehicle tracking services.
So instead of waiting until you've had a couple of drinks to decide whether to drive, the decision is made when the option is added to your new car. It would detect a driver's blood alcohol content by touch or through breath. If he or she has had too much, the car won't start.
Development of the system is still in its infancy, and federal officials are weighing whether such technology would be socially acceptable. But they said it could be a solution for erasing a grim statistic: 30 people are killed every day in a crash involving a drunken driver.
"We are on the cusp of being able to eliminate the deaths and injuries caused by alcohol-impaired driving for generations to come," said Susan Ferguson, a program manager with the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, which is working on the anti-drunken driving project with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
She and others testified Wednesday at a U.S. Senate field hearing in New Mexico, where the number of traffic deaths related to drunken driving has reached record lows in recent years. Still, state and federal officials said more needs to be done nationally — and new technology could be the key.
In 2008, there were 143 alcohol-related crash deaths in New Mexico. That number dropped even further in 2010 to 139 and the state is on track for another record-low year, state officials said. Nationally, more than 10,000 people are killed each year in alcohol-related crashes.
Experts, including a representative of the distilling industry, testified that the system would have to be fast, non-intrusive and accurate.
"Interlock devices should be an option for people when they purchase a new car, not a government-required feature in every car. After all, 40 percent of the adults in the United States do not even drink alcohol, and the overwhelming majority of those adults who choose to drink do so responsibly," said David Culver, vice president of government relations with the Distilled Spirits Council in Washington.
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., have introduced legislation that would authorize $12 million of existing annual funding for five years for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to continue working on the DADSS program.
Culver said his group supports the legislation, but he suggested Udall and other sponsors amend some of the language to "reflect your true intentions."
Lora Lee Ortiz, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving New Mexico, testified that the technology has the potential to turn cars into a cure.
She said a combination of DWI laws that require ignition interlocks and vehicle seizures have helped limit fatalities by keeping some repeat offenders from driving, but those laws haven't stopped everyone.
"We believe that 50 to 75 percent still drive, so we have to somehow take the ability away," she said.
"I truly believe the program will address this and save lives as well. It's a piece to the puzzle."
The technology is expected to be demonstrated in one or more research vehicles by the second half of 2013, Ferguson said.
Susan Montoya Bryan can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM