Santa’s DUI?

Santa was in trouble and time was ticking. His sleigh wouldn’t start. He was stuck on a roof in Myrtle Beach. The reindeer were getting nervous. “We’ve got to be in Canada in a half an hour,” said Rudolph. Suddenly, it dawned on him. “That glass of eggnog must have tripped the new, federally mandated alcohol sensor on my sleigh! Call a cab, Rudolph.”

“Alcohol sensor?” Rudolph cried. “Who will deliver presents to the world’s little boys and girls now?”

Fortunately, hooking reindeer up to an in-sleigh alcohol detection device is a tough technological challenge. But ordinary car-driving Americans will face Santa’s predicament over and over again if the push for the widespread use of intrusive in-vehicle alcohol detectors continues.

Automakers and the federal government have poured millions (including millions of your tax dollars) into a government program called DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety), which is developing alcohol sensing technology to be installed as standard equipment in all cars. Congress recently boosted the program’s funding with $10 million in this year’s federal highway bill, allowing scientists to reach that goal even faster. Just this week, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the speedy completion of the DADSS program.

While the technology is supposed to be used on a voluntary basis, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and fervent DADSS supporters like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have freely admitted that the “longer term goal is DADSS in every vehicle.” MADD leaders have confessed that they hope the technology will be as standard in new vehicles as seat belts and airbags.

If it was guaranteed that these devices would be set at the current 0.08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit, the technology wouldn’t be quite so troubling. Unfortunately, for various physiological and legal reasons, setting these devices at the legal limit is virtually impossible.

To avoid liability, these factory-installed devices will have to be set below 0.08 – possibly as low as 0.02 or 0.03, the level an average-size man reaches after one drink. The head of the DADSS program has already admitted that the devices will have to be set well below the legal limit. Hence, Santa’s getting stuck on the rooftop after a single glass of eggnog.

Even worse, he might have gotten stuck up there even if he hadn’t had anything to drink at all. The truth is that even if these new alcohol detection devices are manufactured to the highest reliability standard – that is, they function properly 99.99966 percent of the time – they are still estimated to malfunction 4,000 times every day. If they’re slightly less reliable – i.e., they function properly 99.7 percent of the time – there would be as many as 3 million misreadings every day. That’s up to 3 million moms unable to pick up their kids at school, employees unable to get to work, and Christmas shoppers stranded at home, or one Santa Claus unable to deliver toys to all the world’s good little boys and girls.

That future is closer than you might think, as the DADSS program has moved into its second phase of research; by next Christmas there will be a drivable test vehicle with DADSS equipment installed. Consumer Reports has been told by NHTSA that DADSS “has the potential to be in vehicles within this decade.”

That means Santa’s not getting stuck on any rooftops this year. But if government busybodies and out-of-control activists have their way, we might have just a few more Christmases left before he will.

Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington, D.C.