Infrastructure Bill’s Drunk Driving Tech Mandate Leaves Some Privacy Advocates Nervous

Infrastructure Bill’s Drunk Driving Tech Mandate Leaves Some Privacy Advocates Nervous
Photo: Paul J. Richards, Getty Images

The recently passed $US1 (A$1.36) trillion infrastructure package is jam-packed with initiatives but sprinkled in there amid alongside $US17 (A$23) billion in funding for road safety programs is a mandate requiring carmakers to implement monitoring systems to identify and stop drunk drivers.

The mandate, first noted by the Associated Press could apply to new vehicles sold as early as 2026. Courts have ordered some drunk drivers to use breathalyzers attached to ignition interlocks to start their vehicles for years, but the technology noted in this bill would take that concept much further and would need to be capable of “passively monitor[ing] the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.”

Though the Department of Transportation has yet to put its foot down on the exact type of technology it will use for this program, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and 17 automakers have been working on something called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety ( DADSS ) since 2008. DADSS is exploring both a breath and touch-based system to detect whether or not a driver has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above 0.08%.

The breath-based system aims to measure alcohol readings based on a driver’s breath with the goal of distinguishing between the driver and passengers. The touch-based system meanwhile would shine an infrared light through a driver’s fingertip to measure blood alcohol levels under the skin’s surface.

Carmakers are also working on their own monitoring solutions outside of DADSS. Last year, Volvo began rolling out vehicles with cameras and sensors that could be used to look for signs of distracted or drunk drivers. Nissan has also developed what it has called a “drunk driving prevention concept car” equipped with a sensor-filled knob it claims can detect the presence of alcohol in a driver’s sweat. Tesla has also started using the camera above its rearview mirrors of its Model 3 and Model Y vehicles to monitor drivers, but that is focused more on ensuring drivers are paying attention while using driver assistance programs.

The stakes around detecting drunk driving couldn’t be higher. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about 10,000 people are killed every year due to crashes involving alcohol, which makes up about one-third of all traffic crash deaths in the US. For a sense of scale, the NHTSA estimates one person was killed in a drunk driving crash every 52 minutes in the US two years ago.

The new mandate struck a positive note with some car safety groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving which has advocated for more detection tech in the past. “It’s monumental,” Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving told the AP. Otte went on to describe the package as the “single most important legislation” in the group’s history.

At the same time though, the mandate has drawn concerns from safety experts and digital rights groups that warn driver monitoring technology could have knock-on privacy implications. In a letter sent last year by the American Highway Users Alliance, the organisation urged support of the NHTSA’s DADSS Research Program but expressed concerns that the technology could potentially infringe on driver’s civil liberties.

“It is also extremely important that a technology designed to control human behaviour not be imposed before it is clear that civil liberties are protected and the technology works properly – without false positives where law-abiding drivers can’t start their cars and false negatives where law-breaking drivers over the legal alcohol limit rely on the technology to make the dangerous assumption that they are safe to dive,” the group wrote.

The group also expressed concerns over how the collection and storage of driver data would work and who would have the rights to that data. Others, like Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn, have expressed concerns over the accuracy of driver monitoring technology and potential risks of bias.

“Attention tracking technology is error-prone and biased,” Fox Cahn, told Gizmodo. “We’ve seen this sort of technology discriminate against individuals with disabilities when it’s used for remote proctoring, and it will be just as biased on the road.”

Fox warned monitoring technology could be easily circumvented by impaired drivers.

“We know from other countries that there are ways to reduce drunk driving, such as investing in public transportation, Cahn said. “We should invest in evidence-based measures, not turn our cars into government surveillance tools.”