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A GM onboard experimental alcohol and drug impairment detection device of the 1970s

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photography courtesy of the Rocky Rotella collection.

Considering the emphasis placed on eliminating impaired driving today, be it due to alcohol, drugs, or other distractions such as texting, it’s interesting to note that back in the 1970s (well before texting) General Motors was seeking solutions. An example is this critical tracking test (CTT) “experimental deterrent” that was developed and evaluated by GM’s Engineering Staff for 1974.

Results of a 10-second test the driver took each time he or she got behind the wheel determined whether the car would start. When the key was turned, the CTT was administered via the gauge in the instrument panel. Its needle began to move to either side of the center mark on the gauge face, and the driver had to keep it within the acceptable range through small corrections made with the steering wheel. Needle movements intensified as the test progressed, further challenging the driver.

If he or she was successful, the “Pass” button illuminated, and the car could be started. If the driver failed, the “Reset” button lit up and had to be pushed to repeat the test.

The information provided by GM states that the driver had three attempts to pass, but it doesn’t reveal what happens after three failures. Other contemporary reports on the device have mentioned a one-hour wait before the test could be tried again.

GM summed up by stating, “Early experiments indicate a 70-percent intoxicated failure rate among persons with a 0.1-percent or more blood alcohol concentration, limit of Michigan’s implied consent law.”

We’ve also read about an earlier version of this type of device from GM that instead displays a series of five numbers above five numbered white buttons on the instrument panel. To pass this test, the driver must accurately replicate the number sequence provided by using the buttons and do it in the designated timeframe. Another variation was a handheld unit that operated in the same manner but had a keypad with more numbers that was similar to a phone.

Had any of these devices been made mandatory, a situation that would’ve required consideration is if a driver had to move a car in an emergency where time was of the essence. Another is, those who did not drink alcohol, take illegal drugs, or legal pharmaceuticals that could cause impairment may have felt like they were being punished for those who did.

Conversely, they could’ve viewed it as they’d rather be inconvenienced for 10 seconds at the beginning of a drive if it significantly reduced the chance of crossing paths with another driver who didn’t have to take the test and was impaired. These types of tests may also have been useful in keeping heavily fatigued or angry drivers off the road, until they rested or calmed down enough to pass.

Nevertheless, they didn’t eliminate the possibility of an impaired driver simply recruiting someone else to perform the required task(s) just to get the car started.

We don’t recall seeing any of these devices installed in passenger cars sold to the public back then. Have you heard of them or others like them that were tested in vehicles of that era to accomplish the same goal?

Would you have purchased a car that included one of these devices as standard/mandatory equipment, or would it have been a deal breaker?