Does technology keep us safer or overstep?

Billions of dollars’ worth of research on new highway safety technology that’s included in the federal infrastructure bill could keep drunken drivers parked — if the technology works correctly. But does it overstep?

Debate has been heating up over the proposal, the logistics of making it work, potential malfunctions and, something that should be of concern to all Americans, our privacy.

Increasingly “Big Brother” truly is watching, and now it could include keeping a record of our attempts to shift into drive and whether or not we’ve been drinking.

The still-evolving $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill includes several automotive safety measures. One of the more controversial items is a requirement for new technology to keep drunken drivers off the road.

Granted, we all know drunken driving remains a very serious problem in America and around the world. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports drunken driving kills an American every 52 minutes. Over the past five years, annual deaths have averaged over 10,000, or nearly 30 percent of total highway fatalities, NHTSA data shows.

People already convicted of drunken driving offenses may be required to prove they are sober, using technology similar to a police Breathalyzer, before they may drive. They blow into a tube, with sensors that detect their blood alcohol level. A camera system even confirms someone else isn’t blowing into the system.

But here’s the rub. These are people already convicted of this heinous offense — probably more than once. The “Breathalyzer-type” monitoring device probably was installed in their vehicles as part of their sentencing, more than likely as part of their attempts to earn back the privilege of getting behind the wheel.

So, what about the rest of us? What about those of us who have been responsible drivers? Those who when they’ve had a drink, rely on Uber or use a pre-planned designated driver? Is it fair that we will all be obligated to have the computer in our personal vehicle constantly monitoring — and recording, no less — our blood-alcohol level each time we shift into drive?

Robert Strassburger, president and CEO of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, a group based in the Washington, D.C., area and made up of the major automakers, told MarketWatch for a story this month that if a driver is over a predetermined alcohol limit, the system might not allow the car to start or to move. Or, he said, it might just give you a warning, depending on the programming.

And he acknowledges the automakers are aware of the privacy worries raised by such new technology.

If you didn’t already realize it, our automobiles constantly are gathering and storing information about all of us. It tracks things like geolocation (where we go); driver behavior (vehicle speed, safety belt use, etc.) and even biometrics (physical or biological characteristics that identify a person). The car’s internal computer also is constantly communicating.

And you know that smartphone you pair with the automobile? It’s doing much more than transferring just your music to the car’s speakers. It’s also transferring data and information from your phone all about you.

It’s true that most automakers have adopted privacy principles for their computers, but exactly how do we know how far any of that information is going?

Should any of the data collected by your vehicle — a programmed but still inanimate object — be shared with law enforcement? Or how about insurance companies? Exactly who is responsible for the actions of the car if it malfunctions and somehow fails to prevent a drunken driver from driving off and injuring or killing someone. Is it the programmer’s responsibility? The manufacturer’s? The car’s owner?

I say, before we jump in with both feet in an attempt to protect us from the risks of drunken drivers, we should slow down for a minute and also consider the risks that could come with sacrificing more and more of our privacy.


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