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Feds commit $21M to drunken driving technology

An interlock device is demonstrated in a vehicle

An interlock device is demonstrated in a vehicle in the parking lot at the Alcohol Safety Action Program building in Harrisonburg, Va. The device requires the driver's breath to be monitored for alcohol before a vehicle can be started and driven. Photo Credit: AP / Justin Falls

A $21 million infusion of federal funding for technology to stop drunken drivers — partly inspired by this past summer’s limousine crash in Cutchogue that killed four young women — will speed the development of two detection devices, Sen. Chuck Schumer said Thursday.

Money for the two systems — a touch screen and a breath sensor — was included in the latest transportation reauthorization bill, New York’s senior Democratic senator said in a statement.

“Drunk driving is a scourge that takes a toll on countless families and communities across the country, and that’s why we need a new, innovative approach to keep our kids safe and our families intact,” Schumer said.

On average, two in three people will be involved in a drunken driving crash during their lifetime, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Schumer said.

While the new alcohol detectors should be required for chronic drunken drivers, they could be optional for others, such as parents buying a car for a teenage driver, a Schumer spokesman said.

In approving the funds for fiscal 2017 to 2020, Congress, for the first time, mandated research into the breath sensor and the touch screen, which could use infrared light to gauge blood alcohol levels under the skin.

The July 18 limousine crash that killed four close friends from Long Island during a wine-tasting outing in Cutchogue also prompted Schumer in September to pressure the National Transportation Safety Board to probe such accidents on a case-by-case basis.

In the Cutchogue crash, authorities charged a Southold man with driving while intoxicated after his pickup truck slammed into the limousine as it attempted a U-turn. Later testing showed his blood-alcohol level was 0.066 percent, less than New York’s legal threshold of 0.08 percent.

That deadly collision was far from unique in New York and around the nation, Schumer said. In New York, there were 8,368 alcohol-related crashes — and 358 were fatal — in 2013, according to the latest data from the Department of Motor Vehicles, he said.

Some of the current methods used to prevent drunken driving, such as ignition locks, are obtrusive and “future technology has to be unnoticeable and extremely accurate so that it doesn’t inconvenience a sober driver.”

The new technology uses sensors with touch or noninvasive breath sensors that can detect in less than a second when a driver is over the legal limit, and would prevent the vehicle from moving.

“There is no excuse or time to waste when it comes to the acceleration of availability for this already developed anti-DWI technology,” Schumer said.

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