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Posted: December 9, 2007
Nanotechnology may put an end to drunk-driving deaths
(Nanowerk News) Emerging nanotechnology may put an end to a costly social problem that years of public awareness campaigns have not -- deaths caused by drinking and driving.
"Technology in itself, in time, could almost eliminate impaired driving," said Andrew Murie, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada.
About 1,500 people a year die in Canada from alcohol-related accidents on roads, recreational vehicles and boats.
But what has MADD, governments and police forces excited about is a new generation of ignition interlocking devices, which prevent a car, and potentially all vehicles, from being started if the driver's blood-alcohol level is over a preset level.
A blue-ribbon panel in the U.S. -- which Transport Canada, MADD Canada and automakers are members of -- is considering having the interlocking devices installed in all new cars so that, if a driver is over the legal blood-alcohol level, the car won't start.
The group is studying various nanotechnologies, but one of them uses sensors embedded in the steering wheel or gear shift that can measure blood-alcohol levels through the skin -- much as an exercise machine can measure a heart rate.
Most provinces and territories have or are planning to bring in interlocking devices, but these are the old-generation devices, where drivers have to blow into a tube. Furthermore, they're only available to people who have been convicted of drunk driving.
Murie said there are only about 11,000 interlocks on cars in Canada now, but about 90,000 drunk-driving convictions a year. The current interlocking devices are widely credited with cutting down on recidivism, but they aren't widely used and few experts believe all drivers would accept having to blow into the device every time they want to start their cars.
But Murie said efforts to curb drinking and driving have plateaued since about 1999.
"We've gone as far as we can on behaviour changes," he said.
That is why the nanotechnology, which would be far more passive than the current interlocking devices, may become for Canadians an acceptable trade-off between civil liberties and an effort to save lives.
A survey to be released by MADD and Transport Canada on Tuesday will show that close to 60 per cent of Canadians would support interlocking devices with nanotechnology in all Canadian cars. Murie expects those numbers to climb quickly once people see a prototype and understand it better. Both Nissan and Toyota are well on their way to being able to produce cars with the nanotechnology.
But Marlene Bourne, an emerging technologies expert from the U.S., says she expects it to provoke vigorous debate.
"I'm not sure about Canada, but I would think in the United States, somebody's going to make an argument that it's an invasion of privacy and you should be able to do whatever you want in your car," she said.
"And then you could get, on the other hand, the argument for simple public safety."
Paul Boase, a Transport Canada official, said the issue is not just about road safety, and agreed there needs to be political debate.
"Certainly, the integrity and the reliability of the system would be very important to get people to buy in," he said. "If this thing is failing a lot, or is too easy to defeat, then presumably people won't be interested in it."
Cost will also be an issue with consumers, he said.
But there may be growing interest.
Quebec's transport minister, Julie Boulet, will also meet with her federal counterpart soon to ask that interlocking devices become mandatory on all new cars in Canada, something the Canadian Police Association also supports.
And documents obtained by CanWest News Service show that Transport Canada is creating "best practices" for implementing and operating an interlocking-device program.
"The standards are not intended as a set of rules that should be strictly adhered to," a draft report says. "Rather, they are intended as guidelines for best practices." This is based on the old blowing technology, but the document acknowledges that changes in technology for interlocking devices will require constant updating to the standards.
Licensing and suspensions fall under provincial jurisdiction. But if Canada decided all new cars had to have an interlocking device, it would have to be under federal legislation, probably under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, Boase said.
While Alberta was the first province in the country to introduce an interlock program, Quebec has the highest rate of people convicted of drunk driving who use the devices -- 20 per cent, compared to the national average of 15 per cent.
The movement to force all new cars to have interlocking devices is also progressing in the U.S. In New York State, a bill has been introduced that would require interlocks on all new cars, and others are being proposed in New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington state. A similar law, proposed by House Representative Ken Martinez, failed to pass in New Mexico in 2004.
"At the time of the legislation, the technology was emerging," Martinez said. "Today, we are much closer to a technological solution that is safe, effective and transparent. 'Transparent' means in the industry it's there, but it doesn't bother you -- or, better, you don't notice it till it's needed, much like an airbag."
It may sound utopian, but Murie is hopeful the nanotechnology will be widely accepted.
"It is reasonable to think that in the next decade or so, that you could almost see the elimination of impaired driving.
"If you can't get the drunk to stop driving, then you get the car to stop carrying the drunk around."
Source: CanWest News Service (Jack Branswell and Ken Meaney)