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New systems speed up drivers’ blood-alcohol tests

A QinetiQ system measures blood-alcohol level through a person’s finger. A QinetiQ system measures blood-alcohol level through a person’s finger. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Clifford Atiyeh and Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / January 29, 2011

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The first working prototypes of systems to prevent drunk drivers from starting their cars were demonstrated in Waltham yesterday, at an event attended by US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Two systems were demonstrated yesterday, developed by Waltham defense contractor QinetiQ North America Inc. in conjunction with companies in Sweden and New Mexico. One measured a driver’s blood-alcohol level through a quick touch of a finger, and the other analyzed a driver’s breath.

QinetiQ engineers said that unlike court-ordered breathalyzer ignition locks, which require a driver to blow into a tube and wait several seconds for the result, their systems will eventually analyze a driver’s blood-alcohol content in less than one second — ideally, performing the test automatically. The project was established in 2008 with $10 million in grants from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, and ends in 2013.

About 11,000 people — one-third of all traffic fatalities in the United States — die in alcohol-related crashes every year, LaHood said, adding that the concept for an automatic testing system has “evolved from a moon shot idea to a device in development.’’ He said engineers were at least eight years away from bringing a practical system to market.

At yesterday’s demonstration, researchers from McLean Hospital in Belmont tested a volunteer, a woman whose identity was withheld. The volunteer drank two vodka beverages, then was tested by each of the two prototype systems. Both revealed a blood-alcohol content of 0.06 percent, 0.02 percent below the legal limit.

McLean has tested the devices on 12 people in a lab setting, according to hospital researcher David Penetar. The next step, he said, is to see if breath-based systems will be able to isolate results from the driver, and not be affected by passengers who may be intoxicated.

The touch sensor was built into a case the size of a shoebox, and the breath sensor was about as large as a box of kitchen matches. That’s too large, and the prototype devices react too slowly to be practical for production vehicles, said Bud Zaouk, a QinetiQ technical manager. Zaouk said the sensors should be small enough to place on the steering wheel, ignition switch, or in the headliner.

Eventually, he said, vehicles could use both types of systems in tandem. “These two systems can complement each other,’’ he said.

Similar technology is already on the market. The “Attention Assist’’ feature on Mercedes-Benz vehicles uses pressure sensors in the steering wheel to determine whether a driver is dozing. On the Lexus LS, a camera monitors the driver’s eyes, and sounds a warning if they stray from the windshield for too long. Ford offers programmable key fobs that can limit a car’s speed, and even the radio volume.

Rebecca Lindland, an analyst for research firm IHS Automotive in Lexington, said alcohol sensors could be controversial because manufacturers may not want to be associated with technology that implies “an arrest or some past poor behavior.’’

LaHood was joined at the demonstration by David L. Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, who said the agency would not require automakers to install the devices, and hopes insurance companies would provide discounts on driver premiums.

Strickland later spent part of the day meeting with state Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan and other Massachusetts officials to encourage the state to adopt a primary seat belt law, among other safety matters.

Thirty-one states have primary seat belt laws, meaning police can cite people solely for failing to wear a seat belt. In Massachusetts and 17 other states, the law is secondary, meaning police must first suspect another violation before they can pull someone over and issue a $25 ticket for failing to buckle up. Only New Hampshire has no seat belt law for adults. A primary seat belt law came close to passing here in 2006. Subsequent bills have stalled in legislative committees.

LaHood said he hopes to see Massachusetts upgrade its law. A coalition has formed — Belts Ensure a Safer Tomorrow — and legislation was filed last week on Beacon Hill.

“We know that if people buckle up, a lot of lives will be saved,’’ LaHood said.

Advocates say the 10 percent boost in seat belt use that typically accompanies adoption of a primary law would save 18 lives a year and reduce annual health care, labor, and property damage costs by more than $160 million.

Clifford Atiyeh can be reached at catiyeh@globe.com; Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.