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Business Unusual

Making cars the traffic cop

11 August 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

Could we solve the most common traffic violations by making our vehicles the law enforcer

A TV show from the 90s called Beyond 2000 featured an insert on car technology that as a teenager I thought was a great idea and expected to be seen as standard by the time I was able to drive. A breathalyser built into the car.

To start the car you first needed to blow on the breathalyser. If you passed the car would start, if you failed it would not.

What if you got a passenger to blow for you? What if it was your child? That might work, but why would someone who is not drinking allow you to drive the car when you were over the limit. If you were willing to compel a child to blow on your behalf and then make them travel with you, you had bigger problems than just drink driving.

The makers, figuring that a willing plant at the departure point might blow for you, built in the need to blow again 5 mins into the trip. This also covered the bases for you having left thinking you were still okay only to get worse some time later.

Having the car come to a stop could have been dangerous as this was before GPS was common, so instead it would simply flash the lights in a pattern that could only mean the driver was over the limit.

So what happened to the breathalysers in all the cars?

We did. I have often asked those who enjoy driving their views about how important safety is to their car choices. Everyone has declared it important, not one said they would want to buy a car that checked their breath.

The reasons ranged from questions about accuracy, reliability and for some too much control by authorities. They agreed that issues like drunk driving, unsafe driving, speeding, poor car maintenance were a contributor to unnecessary road deaths, but like most of us believed others were the major cause, not them.

This is a common bias with humans - for things we feel we are fairly competent we tend to overestimate our skill. Ask anyone how they rate their driving between below average, average or above average and too many will say above average which at best means they are average or they are so mistaken that they are worse than average. The biggest concern is that below average drivers are the most likely to believe they are above average. Read about the Dunning-Kruger effect if you have not come across this before.

I don’t mean to sound critical of driving fans, but as car economy using automatic gearboxes goes, older drivers will tell you they prefer a manual for control and fuel efficiency. In the past they had a point because automatic gearboxes were less efficient and the sensors to determine the best gear for the acceleration and road type was not as sophisticated as it is now. If you are still concerned about the best economy and driving profile, the automatic is at least just as good or even better. Controlling the gear you are in is as unnecessary as wanting to have full manual control over the wiper blade speed. If wipers could be designed to simply work when you needed them and at the optimum frequency then we could get rid of the control altogether.

I don’t want to alienate drivers who enjoy driving, car makers create cars for you, not those that would prefer better public transport or to have someone else drive.

But if fans of driving don’t like the things that can make cars safer then we get stuck.

This is the reason that the functional option for a breathalyser over a quarter of a century ago is not standard even though turbo chargers, 4x4’s and high definition car entertainment systems are.

More laws

The surprising thing is that it is not that drink driving is a new thing. The first arrest according to was when a 25-year-old taxi driver crashed his car into a building in London. This was on 10 September 1897. Almost a century later a teenage me was under the impression that a modern problem had a high tech solution.

You may think testing has been the stumbling block, you certainly will see most drivers charged with drunk driving claiming the device was not accurate and it is the reason blood tests are still the standard, even though the first breath test device was created in 1936 and the first breathalyser was introduced in the early 50s.

You can buy the sensor to electronically detect alcohol in an air sample for less than R100.

So rather than this problem being subjected to over policing or excessive laws, it is fair to say we have simply not had enough will or ability to enforce it.

Alcohol makes SA road collisions more likely to lead to fatalities

If you still don’t think more can be done, then perhaps the next section will offer some practical options.

A report from accidents statistics between 2016 and 2018 released in 2020 found that alcohol related injury and death accounted for a significant portion of road fatalities and was estimated to cost over R18 billion in losses.

The report found that in 90% of cases dangerous driving and intoxication were the contributing factors in road deaths. Speeding accounted for over half the fatalities and overtaking 20%, having had a drink may have predisposed you to more likely attempt both.

Further factors included more fatalities occurring at night and three out of five on weekends.

It found that in cases where pedestrians were involved the risk of death was much greater than for other causes.

No matter how you slice it, it would make more sense to increase the effectiveness of preventing someone driving drunk than we do at the moment. An approved amendment to the law will see the allowance for Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) reduced to zero.

That may seem like a good idea but when so many incidents are caused by intoxication, you can assume as many if not more are going undetected. If we were to increase testing significantly we would create a new problem of having to prosecute the offenders. Given the seriousness of the allegation, it would require a lot to ensure a conviction and while justified when compared to causing death, a conviction could be very damaging to the offender’s career and ability to support themselves and their family.

The report provides insight that the issue is elevated outside metro areas when related to the proportion of population, most likely as people need to travel further and have less alternatives to driving.

Can it be solved?

Complex problems don’t have simple solutions and this is a complex problem. In years to come we will most likely consider allowing humans to operate vehicles capable of the speeds we do as having been regrettable. But here we are.

A provision, years in the making, has been included into the US infrastructure Bill that sets car manufacturers the task of building a method to determine if someone is able to drive before allowing the car to be started.

Addressing the problem at that point, even with aftermarket efforts to disable the devices will prevent many from trying to drive drunk. Not needing a cop to catch you and facing the consequences of that decision is a win for everyone and preventing you from having to deal with having caused someone’s death potentially your own is first prize.

And because we know when the issue is most likely the devices can be programmed to specifically test during the most dangerous periods while still inserting random tests from time to time.

I would not advocate a register of personal results being shared beyond the driver or owner, but should there be repeated excess readings, the device could prompt the user to seek help or if ignored require it.

Once a device is included it does not only have to monitor intoxication. A basic phone device could be built and operated by the manufacturer to update the latest speed restrictions and alert the driver whenever exceeded, even if only when cameras are near, ensuring that speeds are reduced and that traffic authorities have one less ticket to issue. Some may think it is a money making scheme but the cost to recover the fines is often more than the fine itself.

Instead, the owner could get a warning which if ignored could be reported to the manufacturer which could be compelled to alert the traffic authorities and issue demerit points. One sanction might be to progressively limit the top speed the more often the set speed limit is exceeded. This will allow those that might need to speed in an emergency the opportunity to do so and explain the cause to get the override removed.

For those that are concerned that aftermarket workarounds would be used, making the penalty to a person and the business that allows it significant would help and making insurers partners with manufacturers that could request the driver profile when determining premiums in the same way we do credit checks would further ensure the system has checks and balances.

The most important thing is that drivers are made aware of their driving habits and profile constantly. Connecting the drivers profile to their phones will work in the same way as a health monitor works or like the insurance apps that offer a discount for good driving.

I would suggest that rather than license fees and heavy fines, options to lower the license fees to zero for good driving and possibly even creating a lottery of fine money to be paid to drivers with no fines would further nudge drivers to change their behaviour.

I look forward to that final name being listed along with George Smith as the first drunk driving incident to be documented as the last to close the chapter on our belief that we are able to drive under the influence.

11 August 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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