When breath-testing instruments were introduced in the 1950s, they were a groundbreaking new technology. Fifty years later, current and emerging technologies remain the key to reducing drunk driving. Although drunk-driving fatalities fell significantly from 1985–1995, in 2005 they declined only 1.2 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Jim Fell, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, notes DWI arrest rates have also decreased from a high of 1.94 million arrests in 1989 to 1.45 million in 2003.
MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) aims to reinvigorate the nation’s focus on drunk-driving enforcement in order to significantly reduce the nearly 13,000 deaths annually caused by drunk drivers. Last summer, MADD sponsored the International Technology Symposium: A Nation Without Drunk Driving, bringing together traffic-safety researchers, law enforcement officers, automotive industry and government personnel, and advocacy groups. The existing, new and emerging technologies discussed at the meeting show how law enforcement can continue to improve their efforts to combat impaired driving.
Passive Alcohol Sensors
This technology has proven successful in increasing DWI detections by roughly 50 percent at checkpoints and about 10 percent on routine patrols. Because more agencies now use sobriety checkpoints to both deter impaired driving and increase enforcement, passive sampling could dramatically increase DWI arrest rates. Jim Fell states, “If all police officers used passive alcohol sensing technology on every traffic stop and at all checkpoints, we could possibly detect and arrest 140,000–700,000 more drunk drivers … each year.”
Unfortunately, passive sensors are underused by law enforcement agencies, mostly because of cost, bad experiences with early technology and disappointing results due to lack of training. According to Fell, only about 0.4 percent of the 500,000 traffic law enforcement officers patrolling the nation’s roadways use passive sampling today.
Master Police Officer Griggs Wall, an 11-year veteran of the Gainesville (Ga.) Police Department, uses a passive alcohol sensing flashlight to prescreen every nighttime traffic stop. With more than 500 DWI arrests to his credit, Wall says, “My passive alcohol sensing unit is not the sole investigation tool I use, but for me they are invaluable in red-flagging a potential DWI suspect. Even when I can’t detect the presence of alcohol, the passive sampler lets me know I need to take the investigation to the next level.”
He finds this technology especially helpful with lower blood-alcohol content (BAC) suspects, drivers under 21 subject to zero BAC level laws, in windy or rainy conditions, and at sobriety checkpoints. “I’m certified in standardized field sobriety testing (SFST) and am a drug recognition expert, and still I rely on the passive sensor as another tool to help me do my job,” he says.
Visual & Ocular
Promising innovations are emerging in the areas of visual and ocular measurements of driver impairment. Horizontal-gaze nystagmus and pupil reaction to light are currently used in the SFST protocol. Emerging technology will let you record auditory directions and the subject’s visual responses during nystagmus testing, providing objective evidence that can then be used to corroborate your testimony in court. Prescott Valley (Ariz.) Police Department Field Services Commander P.J. Janik is excited about the opportunity to field test the new technology. “I believe this technology will be an important tool in prosecuting drunk drivers. It’s one more step in the right direction for impaired driving enforcement,” he says.
The new technology should reduce the added hurdle of explaining the science of horizontal-gaze nystagmus to the jury when officers testify in DWI cases. “This system helps demystify the science of horizontal-gaze nystagmus as a powerful indicator of impairment. Now, the judge, jury, defense attorneys and others will see just what the officer observed along with hearing the officer’s instructions and the violator’s responses,” says Janik.
Automated Records & Reporting Systems
Electronic citations and automated impaired-driving data management are promising new technologies. Impaired-driving records information systems are designed to follow offenders from the initial roadside contact through the state’s entire system to the completion of sanctions.
Although most states use some components of DWI tracking systems, law enforcement agencies, motor vehicle offices and judicial systems typically don’t share much information. NHTSA demonstration projects in several states have shown that use of real-time data can dramatically improve the handling of impaired driving arrests, convictions and sanctions. The NHTSA has released guidelines for impaired driving records information systems in 2007 based on these results on its Web site (to find it, go to nhtsa.gov and search for document number 2006-24872).
The Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) project is a great example of an NHTSA pilot project. The DMV’s integrated alcohol/drug arrest system produces chemical test permits and maintains permit holder data; stores chemical test details; triggers administrative suspension and/or orders for assessment (pre-conviction); provides for administrative suspension data online for hearings anywhere in the state; and provides reports on the administrative suspension/hearing process. The system enhances the court’s ability to transmit conviction data, court orders and changes in conviction status to the DMV.
The time required to complete DWI arrest reports can be another substantial impediment to enforcing the law. The Texas Municipal Police Association (TMPA), with funding from NHTSA, has developed a DUI/DWI reporting system with standardization and speed in mind. The Law Enforcement Advanced DUI/DWI Reporting System (LEADRS) offers an efficient, centralized means to organize, report, and retrieve DUI/DWI arrest information. The TMPA worked with prosecutors during the development of the system to create forms that meet the requirements of a successful prosecution.
When field-tested in Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma, LEADRS cut the time required to file DWI reports by at least half. With LEADRS already in use by more than 700 agencies, TMPA now has a grant to expand the program state-by-state. If a state chooses to implement LEADRS, TMPA representatives will meet with local peace officers and prosecutors to discuss ways to standardize and simplify DUI/DWI arrest processing statewide.
Sophisticated new testing to prevent impaired driving is emerging from medical research to find non-invasive ways of measuring blood glucose levels in diabetics. The light-based technology uses near-infrared spectroscopy to measure alcohol level via skin contact. Clinical studies show this device is as accurate as breath alcohol testing when compared to blood tests. Such biometric-based devices could be the next wave of technology to make identification and verification of alcohol impairment easier, faster and even more reliable.
Combining current and emerging technologies with stepped-up law enforcement can make a dramatic change in both deterrence and arrest of drunk drivers. Chuck Hurley of MADD sums up the situation: “The nation is re-engaging and re-committing to stop drunk driving on America’s roadways. This convergence of commitment and resources combined with exciting new technologies will no doubt result in dramatically safer roadways for all.”
For More Information
Law Enforcement Advanced DUI/DWI Reporting System
MADD Law Enforcement
Janet Dewey-Kollen is a long-time traffic safety advocate, specializing in impaired driving, child/youth safety and occupant-protection issues. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2005-DD-BX-K162 awarded by the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.