Opinion: Canada should think hard before bringing in new anti-drunk driving technology

Jan 30 2023, 3:53 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Sarah Leamon, a criminal lawyer living in Vancouver, who works on high-profile cases. Leamon founded the Sarah Leamon Law Group in 2018.

An innovative new anti-impaired driving law has been passed in the US and is now making waves in Canada.

Starting in 2026, the law will require automotive manufacturers to include anti-impaired driving technology in all new vehicles. Advocates say that this is a necessary step forward, which will help put an end to impaired driving altogether.

But is it really as good as it sounds?

Before I evaluate some of the issues with this approach, I want to make it clear that I am not for impaired driving. Impaired driving is dangerous. It should be stopped, and any approach to stopping it should be seriously considered.

This approach, however, may be better in theory than it will be in reality.

First, there is the question of whether the technology is even available to achieve these goals. After all, the effectiveness of a measure like this will rely on the effectiveness of the technology that is used.

As of right now, there is no clear contender to fit the bill. The Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are working together to identify a system that might work.

The two candidates being considered

The first is a breathalyzer device that is affixed to the vehicle’s steering wheel. This device would continuously test the driver’s blood alcohol concentration while they are driving by analyzing their breath as they inhale and exhale normally. The second is a skin-based test that requires the driver to place their finger on a sensor. This sensor would use new technology to analyze the driver’s blood alcohol concentration prior to allowing the vehicle’s ignition to be activated.

There are potential problems with both.

Given the fact that they both involve relatively new tech, they have not stood the test of time. But even well-established breath-testing technology is not infallible. It can be prone to errors, and those errors only increase with an imperfect human element.

Consider the roadside breath-testing technology that is most commonly used by police officers and is largely recognized as being mostly reliable. These devices are regularly serviced and calibrated in order to ensure their accuracy. In BC, roadside breath-testing devices are required to be tested every 30 days to ensure that their readings are still within range.

This element of constant upkeep presents a practical hurdle for this type of in-vehicle tech.  Drivers may be required to bear both the time and monetary costs of having their vehicles regularly serviced to keep things in working order, as failure to do so could render their vehicles inoperable.

Well, no big deal you might think – this is just another responsibility associated with owning a vehicle. Similar to an oil change.

But, even with proper upkeep, breath-testing technology remains imperfect.

Even the machines used by police can register false positive results for alcohol in circumstances where little to no alcohol is actually present in the bloodstream. For example, the phenomenon of residual mouth alcohol means that a person who has recently consumed even just one sip of alcohol can test positive for being over the legal limit. Products containing alcohol, like certain mouthwashes, breath fresheners, and even hand sanitizers, can also cause false readings.

It is very likely that in-vehicle technology will be prone to similar errors.

Depending on the sensitivity and range of the breath-testing steering wheel, for example, a person who decides to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer while stopped at a red light could see their vehicle shut itself down, or a designated driver transporting a group of intoxicated friends home from a night out could end up leaving everyone stranded.

While contemplating this, you should also keep in mind that both anti-impaired driving solutions being considered by federal regulators are only capable of testing for alcohol impairment. The technology to test for drug impairment is simply not there yet.

Drivers with such in-vehicle technology may therefore be discouraged from consuming alcohol on a night out, but would still theoretically have a carte blanche to use drugs.

Could the devices be tampered with?

We cannot expect that all drivers will conduct themselves in a responsible and law-abiding manner.

Those inclined to circumvent the laws may go to great lengths to do so, from simply not purchasing newer model vehicles to having the breath-testing technology disabled or removed altogether. Some even may decide to use other people to collect the requisite samples, thereby avoiding the driver from being tested at all.

Enforcing the proper use of breath-testing technology in vehicles might also be easier said than done.

The question of how delinquents could be penalized is a difficult one to answer. Would the penalty fall on the car owner or on the driver caught behind the wheel? Would enforcement be done provincially or by way of federal regulations? Would it come down to a warranty issue or could a defunct device void insurance policies? Would a two-tier system suddenly apply to new vehicle owners versus those with older models? After all, there will still be older vehicles on the road that are not equipped with such advanced technology.

But if we are going to equip all new vehicles with anti-impaired driving technology, why not go further?

Why not equip them with speed governors? And technology to disable electronic devices while the vehicle is in motion? Surely, these steps would help put an end to the dangers posed by speeding and distracted driving. So, it then becomes a question of when such measures will end. Or if every potential driving danger will be the subject of state-imposed tech.

In a society that is increasingly reliant on technology with each passing day, it may be hard to accept that not all problems can be solved with a tech-heavy solution.

In the fight against impaired driving, there are better approaches available.

Sarah LeamonSarah Leamon

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