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Tech against intoxication – analysing the feasibility of alcohol-detection in South African driving

The sobering reality of drunk driving in South Africa demands bold solutions. Road accidents claim thousands of lives annually, with a significant portion attributed to alcohol-impaired drivers. While traditional measures aim to deter and punish, innovative technology like in-vehicle breathalysers could offer a potentially promising avenue for preventing drunk driving altogether. Focusing on South Africa, where road safety is a pressing concern, the feasibility and challenges of integrating such technology into vehicles and offender programmes deserve careful consideration.

The potential for prevention

The technology itself is not new. Breathalyser devices integrated into vehicles can act as a guardian, preventing the vehicle’s ignition from turning over if the driver’s blood alcohol content exceeds the legal limit. This direct intervention holds immense potential to reduce drunk driving incidents and mitigating their tragic consequences. However, the effectiveness of integrating breathalyser devices into vehicles largely depends on the supporting measures in place. In contexts such as fleet trucking and logistics, where monitoring systems like dashcams are already prevalent, the addition of alcohol-detection technology could prove highly effective. In these controlled environments, a drunk driver would find it nearly impossible to operate a vehicle equipped with such measures, creating a strong deterrent.

Challenges arise when considering the general public, as individuals could potentially circumvent the system by having someone else blow into the device for them. To address this, advanced technologies with facial recognition and unique activation sequences would be indispensable. These measures would make it significantly more difficult for individuals to manipulate the system, ensuring the accuracy and reliability of alcohol detection and preventing these intoxicated drivers from getting onto the road.

Beyond punishment, towards rehabilitation

For individuals facing the consequences of a first-time DUI offense, this technology could offer a second chance. Instead of being forced into complete license suspension (which is a punitive measure), they could opt for breathalyser installation as part of their rehabilitation programme. This fosters responsibility, ensures compliance with legal requirements, and can seamlessly integrate with the Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offenses (AARTO) demerit system, offering a tangible solution for monitoring and mitigating risks.

For existing offender programmes, breathalyser technology opens exciting possibilities. Individuals could report their breathalyser readings to probationary officers, fostering a proactive approach to sobriety monitoring while promoting a structured reintegration into responsible driving habits. This empowers both the individual and the programme, potentially leading to reduced recidivism.

Multiple challenges and considerations

While the potential benefits are significant, the challenges of integrating breathalysers into vehicles cannot be ignored. While privacy concerns regarding the use of such technology are minimal, given that the act of blowing into the breathalyser is a prerequisite for starting the vehicle, the real challenges lie in ensuring adherence to the programme by making devices tamper-proof and addressing the financial barriers associated with affordability. The cost of these devices poses a significant obstacle, requiring state intervention to make them accessible to a broader range of individuals.

Establishing funds or leasing options could alleviate this financial burden, making the technology more inclusive and attainable. Public acceptance and buy-in will also be vital, necessitating targeted awareness campaigns and highlighting the potential benefits for both offenders and society at large.

Learning from international experience

Fortunately, in South Africa, we won’t have to reinvent the wheel. Countries like Scandinavia and the United States have successfully implemented similar programmes, offering valuable lessons and best practices. By adapting these models to the local context, we can leverage their experience and avoid potential pitfalls. The technology exists, the need is undeniable, and the potential benefits are substantial. While challenges remain, they are not insurmountable, and by prioritising affordability, addressing concerns, and learning from others, South Africa can take a significant step towards revolutionising road safety.

By Rhys Evans

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