How Will Smart Cars Impact DUI Laws?

While recent decades have brought increased awareness of the dangers of drunk driving and a noteworthy 48 percent decline in drunk driving fatalities in the United States since 1982, driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs remains a danger to all of us who travel by car, truck, bus or rideshare vehicle, as well as to pedestrians.

Many law enforcement actions have been taken to discourage DUI, including setting up DUI checkpoints, establishing harsh penalties for violation of DUI laws, and having more sophisticated equipment to assess blood and breath alcohol levels at the time of traffic stops. In spite of all these efforts to keep impaired drivers off our roads, however, on average one person dies every 50 minutes each day in DUI accidents in this country.

Now, with the development of smart cars, vehicles that are presently partially autonomous but conceived to one day be fully autonomous, hopefully drunk-driving accidents will become history in the near future. Because there are so many laws regarding DUI offenses, and because these laws vary from state to state, we can anticipate the need to draft new legislation as smart cars become smarter.

These laws will no doubt concern who bears responsibility for accidents involving self-driving vehicles and whether drinking and driving such vehicles is still an actionable offense. At present, Tesla has a smart car capable of navigating through traffic without driver participation, though even so, the law still requires that the driver (who must still remain sober) have hands on the wheel at all times while the car is in motion.

Legislation Concerning Autonomous Vehicles Is Already on the Books

In spite of the fact that there have already been at least two fatalities associated with autonomous cars on the road (one in Arizona and one in California), companies are still testing these cars in an effort to have them mass-produced in as few years as possible. In several states, self-driving passenger shuttles are already in use.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA are trying to keep pace with automotive innovations by periodically updating their guidelines for autonomous vehicles. Many individual states have already passed laws regarding this new situation as well. One of the sticking points for legislators seems to be the definition of “vehicle operator.”

In Texas, for instance, the operator is designated “a natural person” riding in the vehicle, while Georgia law refers to the person responsible for controlling the autonomous driving system (ADS), who might well be working from a remote location. Clearly, legal, as well as technological, progress will have to be made before this show is fully ready to be “taken on the road.”

Ignition Interlock Devices

Alcohol detection systems are already available. Now, they are only required for repeat DUI offenders and first-time offenders who have created exacerbating circumstances, such as having an extremely high blood alcohol content (BAC) — over .15 percent — or causing a serious injury. It is expected, though, that in the not too distant future no vehicle will start unless the driver first passes a breath sobriety test. This is music to the ears of MADD, SADD, and all the other groups and individuals desperate to find a permanent solution to the problem of drunk driving.

Driver Alcohol Detection Systems Presently in Development

Currently, there are two distinct driver alcohol detection systems in the process of being developed and refined for universal use. Each is designed to prevent a car from starting if the driver is inebriated. One works by measuring the driver’s blood alcohol levels through testing the driver’s breath. The other test screens for alcohol through an infrared light scanner when the driver touches the start button.

These alcohol detection systems have been compared to seatbelts (now required in every car) in that they will inevitably save a tremendous number of lives once they become ubiquitous. Those working on these projects have been directed to make such devices as simple as possible, so that they do not require any definitive action on the driver’s part. The central idea is to keep these devices from being intrusive or embarrassing.

As long as the driver is sober, no one need know the device is at work; the car will just start in the usual manner. The driver participates by just being in the driver’s seat. These driver alcohol detection systems, presently being crafted with an eye towards accuracy, precision and speed of measurement, are expected to be available for general use in between 5 to 8 years.

1. Breath Tests

This type of system, more sophisticated than the one now in place, measures blood alcohol levels by taking a sample of the driver’s breath. Though the levels are detected by sensors mounted in front of the driver, the driver would not have to be aware of their existence. In order to measure the driver’s BAC, the sensors will track the ratio of carbon dioxide molecules to ethanol molecules present in the driver’s breath (and blood). If the ratio detected rises above a certain threshold of ethanol to carbon, the car simply won’t start.

2. Touch Tests

Touch tests will also screen for BAC, but this time by taking measurements of the driver’s alcohol levels under the surface of the skin. By simply pressing the start button, or a touchpad located elsewhere on the car, the driver will activate an infrared light scanner. The scanner will instantly measure the driver’s sobriety or lack of it. If his or her alcohol levels are unacceptably high, the start button will be disabled.

This touch-based system works by using spectroscopy to measure alcohol levels in skin tissue. By shining infrared light on the driver’s skin when it touches the sensor, a portion of this light will reflect back into the touchpad where it will be instantaneously tested for ethanol levels. This particular device will take multiple readings to ensure accuracy.

Other “Smart” Devices Presently in Use

At present, many smart car features are already being used by a great many auto manufacturers. Although fully autonomous cars remain a work in progress, many drivers are already familiar with automatic emergency braking and lane keep assist. All new cars are now required by law to have rear view cameras as a safety feature. These cameras are invaluable.

Not only do they prevent back-up collisions with standing obstacles and other cars, but, much more importantly, they prevent unintentionally hitting pedestrians, especially children who are not otherwise visible in rearview mirrors. As is usually the case, manufacturers of luxury brands (e.g. Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Lexus, BMW) are at the vanguard of technological advancement. Nonetheless, Nissan, Toyota, Honda, Chrysler, Chevy, Hyundai and Kia are not far behind.

Commercial vehicles of many types are now legally required to have back-up alarms to alert cars and pedestrians to the fact the large vehicles are in the process of moving in reverse. There is some controversy about these alarms, however, because the sounds they emit are high-decibel and often disturbing, considered by some to be environmental sound pollution. On the other hand, no purpose will be served if these alarms can’t be heard over other ambient noise.

Hope for the Future: Will drunk driving ever cease to be a problem?

The fervent hope of those who have lost loved ones to drunk drivers, and all of us who support them and fear for our own loved ones, is that smart cars will eventually put an end to such tragedies. It should be remembered, however, that even though really smart cars should greatly lessen drunk driving, alcoholics and drug addicts, not to mention reckless individuals, have an unfortunate tendency to work around the rules. Just as some criminals routinely disarm burglar alarms, some impaired individuals will no doubt find a way to disobey the rules and continue to behave dangerously.

Which laws will have to be changed? How should they be amended?

Laws concerning who will be blamed for collisions will have to be altered. For example, if a driver is not in control of the vehicle, who bears responsibility if an accident takes place? — the car manufacturer? The manufacturer of the device designed to prevent those with high BAC from driving if it malfunctioned? Does the owner/driver of the car have a responsibility to check that all smart devices are working properly before leaving home?

One also has to wonder: Is the person in charge of the vehicle obligated to remain sober to oversee the smart car’s proper function? Will a new law be enacted making an alcohol detection system mandatory even in a self-driving automobile? Will smart cars be constructed so that they will stop if the “driver” becomes inebriated while in the driver’s seat? How will insurance coverage work and how will compensation for personal injuries be decided? If two autonomous smart cars collide, who will be responsible for any injuries incurred?

Other Concerns About Safety with Smart Cars on the Road

Another area of concern is that once fully autonomous smart cars are available, presumably not everyone will have one. Therefore, we have to be concerned about whether human or machine is responsible when the two types of vehicles collide. There will surely be a whole new area of accident law devoted to using the expertise of technology experts to determine definitively whether human error or technological dysfunction is to blame for personal injuries. Furthermore, because smart cars are so new, it is highly unlikely that legislation will allow those who ride in them to be drunk until these cars develop a track record of safety and dependability.

May the Brave New World Be a Safer One

The hope is that technology, at least in terms of smart cars, will make the roads safer for everyone, and that DUI offenses will gradually become crimes of the past, sending DUI fatalities plummeting and a great many people who would have been fined or imprisoned will be able to find the help they need without first being incarcerated.

Attorney Bio

After his graduation from American University’s Washington College of Law, Miami attorney Antonio F. Valiente, Esq. began his legal career at the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office. There, he gained valuable insight and extensive experience over the course of six+ years. Between his time at the Public Defender’s Office & since founding Valiente Law, he’s tried close to 50 felony jury trials as lead counsel, dozens of misdemeanor jury trials, taken over one thousand depositions, & dozens of juvenile trials/adjudicatory hearings.

Mr. Valiente’s experience encompasses everything from minor traffic-related misdemeanors to serious first-degree murder charges. Since 2015, Mr. Valiente has expanded his practice to handle all types of family law matters – from divorce and child custody cases to paternity and same-sex adoptions. Having the opportunity to work with & learn from some of the best and most experienced family law attorneys in the State, Mr. Valiente now provides his family law clients with the same excellent representation he is known for providing his client’s accused of state & federal criminal offenses.

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