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Sweden's Saab Holds Key to Stemming Drunk Driving Fatalities - 2004-06-28


One of the most stubborn highway safety issues around the world is fatalities caused by drunk drivers. Here in the United States, 40 percent of traffic deaths last year involved alcohol-impaired drivers.

Growing concern about drunk-driving in Sweden and many other countries has prompted Saab to develop a device called Alco-key. It's a miniature alcohol-sensing device that would be built into the car's key fob, and it works off already-existing anti-theft technology.

"After you unlock your car, you then blow into the breath-sensing device in the end of the key and it reads the blood-alcohol content of your breath and determines whether or not you're fit to drive, based upon a pre-programmed threshold that is set into the system," said Saab's Kevin Smith, describing the procedure for using it.

The breath sample passes down a small internal tube containing a semi-conductor sensor the size of a pin-head. The sample is analyzed and a small green or red light on the fob lights up. The green light signals you're good to go. A red light means the anti-theft engine immobilizer is active and your Saab is not, and won't be until the time limit is past and you get another chance. Or another, non-drinking driver takes over.

Saab spokesman Kevin Smith says there are several groups who might be interested in the pocket-sized Alco-key.

"A company might want to have this device on their company car fleet of vehicles because it puts a good corporate face forward to the public," he said. "They are concerned about public safety. It's also protective of their own employees."

A second group that could be customers, says Kevin Smith, is parents of young drivers.

"Another potential might be parents that are perhaps putting their child into their first car or sending their child away to college," said Mr. Smith. "Most parents like to send their children to college in a good, safe car to drive and this would raise the level of safety even further."

Saab is currently conducting tests on the prototype to verify its reliability and accuracy. The software controlling the engine immobilizer can be adjusted to the blood-alcohol limits where the car is registered. In commercial production, the Alco-key would cost about $300, which is a fraction of the cost of a fixed system installed inside the car.

Kevin Smith says it's too early to say when the Alco-key may be ready for sale.

"They've brought it far enough along in its development at this point that they intend to show this new Saab Alco-key technology to the world and demonstrate how it functions for the first time in August at a safety seminar in Sweden," he explained.

If all goes well, it's intended that the Alco-key will be available as an accessory through Saab dealers.