Should Our Cars Refuse to Drive if We’ve Been Drinking?

And what about automatically obeying the speed limit?

Key Takeaways

  • A bipartisan infrastructure bill has been introduced that includes a mandate for anti-drunk-driving tech.
  • Insurance discounts could encourage adoption.
  • Self-driving cars already obey speed limits.
A "Don't Drink and Drive" sing in an old window.

Tim Mossholder / Unsplash

A new US Senate bill may mandate that cars refuse to start when they detect that you’re drunk. 

This proposal seems reasonable, as do the other requirements in the new infrastructure bill: technology to stop people from leaving kids in hot cars and automatic emergency braking to avoid crashes. But should cars be able to police us like this? And will people accept these changes?

"I believe that if a law is mandated, people would accept it," used-car dealership owner Mark Beneke told Lifewire via email. "Some of the population may be in an uproar about it at first, but over time they would realize that it is a requirement for them to operate a vehicle. It would be just like needing to have a license or requiring insurance to operate a vehicle."

Spy Cars

Convicted drunk drivers already can be forced to blow into a device that refuses to start the car unless they’re clean, so there is a kind of precedent here. And it would be hard to find any reasonable argument in favor of being allowed to drive while drunk. But is shifting this responsibility to the car the right thing to do?

Perhaps. There’s no privacy violation because this intoxication check would presumably take place locally in the car itself. In principle, it’s not very different from GM’s Belt Assurance System, introduced in 2014-15 to fleet buyers, which refuses to let you drive unless your seatbelt is fastened. That was an optional feature, though, while this proposed new law would be mandatory. 

A person enjoying coffee in a self-driving car.

Jane Khomi / Getty Images

Still, there’s something a little creepy about your car analyzing you, whether it’s done by breathalyzer or by the "passive technologies" mentioned in the bill, which might detect erratic driving. So, how about looking at something less invasive of your personal space? How about we mandate that cars cannot break the speed limit?

Speed Kills

Driving over the limit is illegal. And yet, somehow, we regard it as more of a suggestion than an order. In the movies, the only people that drive at the speed limit are old folks or criminals carrying drugs or dead bodies in the trunk.

Cars already have their top speeds limited in some cases, and now that all vehicles are governed by computers and contain GPS receivers, it’s not hard to imagine a car that knows where it is and abides by the local limit. 

But asking around, it seems that more people are opposed to having their car automatically obey the law than having their car refuse to let them drive while drunk. This may come down to the fact that my respondents don’t drink and drive. Or it may be because people like speeding.

"People often break speed limits for various reasons, such as to meet curfew deadlines or make it to work in time," Katherine Brown, founder and marketing director of remote-monitoring company Spyic, told Lifewire via email.

"The limitations enforced by these cars would deny them this convenience, and hence people will use this as a basis to reject them. A minority percentage will, however, accept these laws regardless of limitations."

A speed limit sign beside a road with mountains in the background.

Ludovic Charlet / Unsplash

It may be true that you sometimes need a quick burst of speed to get out of trouble, but in reality, speeding cars probably cause more death or injury than would be saved by the odd bit of speedy evasive driving. 

Public Safety

How might America sell these changes to the public? After all, even if these are passed into law, people still can avoid buying new cars or buy models that haven’t yet been updated.

And even if we accept that these measures are reasonable, people don’t like to have their previous "freedoms" curtailed. Remember the fuss over compulsory seatbelts and motorbike helmets? To be clear, this bill mentions several new safety measures, including child safety and anti-drunk-driving measures. 

One way would be to give people discounts on their insurance when they drive cars with these limitations added. That would probably take care of most objections from reasonable people. Another would be to trick people into seeing it as a feature, not as a restriction. 

"Tesla's autopilot feature is a great example here," Neil Parker, co-founder of live-streaming company Lovecast, told Lifewire via email. "Autopilot, in fact, prevents speeding, but consumers are jumping to use this feature as it allows the car to drive itself. If you can package safety features in an attractive manner like this, then consumers will only be happy."

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