Tuesday, July 10, 2012

So you leave a bar or restaurant, get in your car or sport utility vehicle, turn the ignition, and ... nothing. Or maybe a computer voice, a Detroit-fashioned Hal, a Siri in your Chevy, scolds: “Driver exceeds alcohol limit. Vehicle will not start.”

Someday, perhaps sooner than later, alcohol-detection devices could be standard features on all new cars sold in the United States (with some possible provisions for the used market as well).

The $100 billion transportation bill approved by Congress with strong bipartisan support, and signed into law just days ago by President Obama, includes $5 million in research funding for driver blood-alcohol-level-sensing technologies that can be built into motor vehicles. In Iowa, the legal BAC is .08. In theory, the devices may have to be set lower, at say, .06, because alcohol doesn’t hit the system with full and totally measurable impact immediately after being consumed. A driver could get into a car at .06 and be over the limit 15 minutes later. Especially if it involves shots.

Some in the restaurant and hospitality industry have expressed concern about the move to such devices now being researched under a national program known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS).

But one leading voice in the Iowa restaurant business sees it differently.

“My initial reaction to that is not negative,” said Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association. “It might even the playing field from the standpoint of personal responsibility.”

In an interview with the Daily Times Herald, Dunker elaborated on that point. Liquor liability laws hit restaurants and bars harder than convenience and liquor stores, she said. If a bartender serves you two too many beers and you blow through a red light and kill your passengers in an ugly T-bone accident, the server can be held to account in court if he had reasonable reason to believe you were intoxicated, or on your way to slurry trouble.

But a customer can hit a convenience store or liquor outlet and buy as much booze as she can afford. “When and where are you going to drink that?” is not a question the cashiers ask before “paper or plastic?” Remember Nicolas Cage filling his shopping cart in “Leaving Las Vegas”?

Dunker says Iowa’s current system heaps a great deal of responsibility on the hospitality industry for monitoring alcohol consumption, something other purveyors of spirits and suds don’t face.

One of Dunker’s counterparts nationally tells the USA Today that alcohol-detection devices in cars would end public social drinking as the nation knows it.

“It will have to be set lower because after five drinks, your BAC level is not .08 right away,” said Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute.

In the USA Today interview, Longwell adds, “It (your BAC) will increase and cross the legal threshold while you’re driving. The vehicle can’t just shut down mid-trip.”

So for liability reasons, and taking into account that not all drivers are 250-pound men for whom that “one for the road” will have less impact than with a petite female motorist, the detection system will have to prohibit driving at a lower level. Longwell speculates that could be .02 or .03, meaning that for many people, driving wouldn’t be possible with a dinner drink or two.

There’s a decidedly rural-urban issue at play here as well.

In cities, those looking to enjoy social drinking, can take cabs or public transportation. Maybe, as denizens of New York or Washington, D.C., or Seattle, they don’t even have cars. Meanwhile, residents of the wide-open spaces (who are clearly equally responsible for their actions) have no other way than driving (although  more bike trails are developing) to get from home and farm to restaurants and social settings where alcohol is served. A zero-tolerance policy, a world in which there is no such accepted term as “responsible drinking and driving,” would make life in places like western Iowa awfully stifling with a sort-of backdoor Prohibition.

But it is a legitimate question: What about just going all-in and setting the legal limit at 0.00, with staged fines based on the level of alcohol in one’s system?

“That would become absolutely oppressive from the standpoint of doing business,” Dunker said.

One obvious question that emerges is how the booze-detection technology would work. Couldn’t a drunk just have a sober friend breathe into good ol’ Hal and switch places? Not so fast, smart guy. Research involves placing sensors in motor vehicle to pick up on a driver’s breath throughout the ride. I guess one could wear a gas mask, but really, when it gets to that point, you should set the car’s navigation GPS on “rehab.”

Wade Newton, a spokesman for DADSS, tells USA Today that researchers are looking into technology that actually could shut down a car or “take some other action” if a driver passes from just under the limit to the red zone.

Should that happen, a new tea party movement is sure to take root, a more literal incarnation.