He has two drunken-driving offenses but
the judge allowed D. P. to keep his license under several conditions. First, he had to pay $250 for the installation in his car of a smart ignition system. Then D. P. was given an electronic driver's license that resembles a credit card but contains a computer chip. On this chip is stored driver information about D. P., including the provision that the car not start until he passes a test.
Instead of a key, he inserts the card into
a card reader in the KitteLock computerized ignition system invented
by Fred Goldberg of Sweden, a materials researcher whose 18-year-old
stepdaughter Kitte was killed by an unlicensed driver on a university
campus in Stockholm. The monitor on the dashboard reads, "D. P., breathe
into the alcohol breath tester." D. P. exhales into the built-in instrument
and passes the test. Then the monitor reads, "D. P., please start the
car." D. P. pushes a button and the car starts.
Hu inserts her electronic driverís license in the Kittelock smart
ignition system inside the Volvo
S-70 sedan. This car was driven at ORNL during a six-month field
test in 1999. Photos by Curtis Boles.
Pat Hu of ORNL's Center for Transportation Analysis (CTA) would like to see a small-scale U.S. demonstration project in which persons repeatedly convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) might continue to drive but only on the condition that they have an electronic license, as in the above scenario. "These drivers are a danger to themselves and to others," she says, recalling a friend who lost his wife and two children in a car crash caused by a drunk driver during their trip to the airport to pick him up. Mothers Against Drunken Driving and the American Automobile Association agree.
In 1997 in the United States, more than 16,200 people
were killed and one million were injured in vehicle crashes involving
intoxicated driversalmost 39% of all traffic fatalities. It
is estimated that one-third of suspended drivers lose their licenses
for drunk-driving offenses and that up to 80% of DUI offenders continue
to drive after their licenses are revoked. A California study suggests
that drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked are four
times more likely to be involved in crashes than drivers with valid
In late 1998, under the leadership of Hu, CTA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation cosponsored the Workshop on Feasibility of Electronic Driver's Licenses for Improved Highway Safety, held in Irvine, California. Attending were 43 stakeholders representing vehicle manufacturers, the insurance industry, the highway safety community, law enforcement, state departments of motor vehicles, the legal and liability profession, federal agencies, national laboratories, and universities. They discussed technological solutions, socioeconomic issues, and institutional barriers.
The workshop focused on KitteLock because it is the only operational system that integrates smart card technology, an ignition interlock device, and an alcohol breathalyzer. The attendees had a chance to try out a Volvo S-70 sedan outfitted with the KitteLock system. This demonstration vehicle was then shipped to ORNL and driven for six months in 1999. As a result of this field test, ORNL drivers made a number of suggestions for improving the system. One frequent suggestion was that the monitor giving driver instructions be dropped below the dashboard to make it less distracting.
"American society historically resists excessive government intervention and Big Brother programs that threaten to invade privacy," Hu says. "One of the biggest challenges to implementing electronic driverís licenses will be to secure widespread public acceptance and community support." Hu thinks that the U.S. public will be more likely to accept this technology if it is first demonstrated on high-risk drivers. "Targeting a demonstration project at drivers who might have fewer privacy 'rights,' such as convicted DUI offenders, might reduce public concern about invasion of privacy," she says. "Electronic driver's licenses require that drivers with previous DUI convictions must continually demonstrate their ability to safely operate a vehicle in order to be 'granted' driving privileges."
If the electronic license and smart ignition system becomes more acceptable to the public and more widely implemented in American cars of the future, it could improve highway safety in other ways besides preventing drunk driving. It could keep a person with a suspended license from driving. It could ensure that drivers of commercial vehicles do not exceed their legal limit on driving time each day. It could reduce the number of car thefts, especially if combined with a fingerprint identification sensor. And it could improve the accuracy of accident reporting by recording on the card chip the driving speed when the accident occurred. Someday the key to increased highway safety could be a chip-carrying plastic card.