Article taken from the February 12, 2010 Waterloo Region Record, by Rose Simone.
WATERLOO - The image of the twin girls, both in a coma, still haunts Dennis Bellehumeur.
He was a clinical neuropsychologist, involved in the accreditation of rehabilitation facilities across North America, when he came out of the elevator at a pediatric hospital in Boston. There, behind a glass wall, in a room for coma patients, were blonde twins, about seven years old. Their parent's car had been hit by a drunk driver.
"I have never forgotten that. I can still see those two little girls," says Bellehumeur, who also experienced the impact of drunk driving in his own family about 20 years ago, when his teenaged son was injured in an alcohol-related car accident.
He became so passionate about stopping drunk driving that he started a company that hopes to use technology to keep impaired people from driving.
Sober Steering Sensors Canada Inc., which was launched in Windsor but moved to the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo last year, is working on technology that makes use of chemical sensors built into steering wheels to detect the gas byproducts of alcohol through the skin of drivers.
The technology, developed in conjunction with a California-based firm, Seacoast Science Inc., has been garnering interest around the world, says Bellehumeur.
Organizations that are trying to combat drunk driving have a keen interest in technology like the one being developed by Sober Steering.
Margaret Miller, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Canada (MADD Canada), says she wishes such technology had been around years ago. Her 26-year-old son, Bruce, a police constable in Prince Edward Island, was killed six years ago by a 23-year-old drunk driver who had been celebrating his last day of school and who also died in the accident.
"I think we will see a future that is bright with promise for eliminating drunk driving and that technology will be leading that," Miller says.
The insurance industry also is interested in the new technology.
It "could be a significant development in loss prevention, especially if it reliable and readily available technology," says John Taylor, president and chief executive of the Ontario Mutual Insurance Association, which is headquartered in Cambridge. "If there are fewer accidents, fewer injuries and less money paid out in claims, then the premiums come down."
Sober Steering recently received $1.5 million from the Ontario government's Innovation Demonstration Fund to produce prototypes and test later them later this year in about 200 fleet vehicles, such as transport trucks and buses. The company is working with K.S. Centoco Ltd., an auto parts supplier in Windsor, to produce steering wheels for those tests.
Bellehumeur says fleet vehicles are a good starting point for the technology because laws do not allow drivers those vehicles to have any alcohol in their bodies. But the sensor arrays are sophisticated enough to be able to measure different levels of intoxication, so it is feasible for the technology to become a standard feature for all vehicles, he says.
The company is working with researchers at the University of Waterloo, the University of Windsor and St. Clair College to continue development of the technology.
Bellehumeur, 59, previously ran a brain injury rehabilitation business in Michigan, but Sober Steering is now his full-time business. The Accelerator Centre, located in UW's Research and Technology Park, is a good place to get the company off the ground, he says, because he has easy access to researchers and top-notch business expertise. This "is the best accelerator centre in the world to be in," he says. "The energy here is infectious."
Bellehumeur says the world is ready for the technology. Throughout North America, including Ontario, judges are mandating ignition interlock systems for vehicles of people who have been convicted of drunk driving. These systems require the driver to blow into a breathalyzer before starting the car; if the system registers alcohol above the legal limit, the vehicle will not start.
But ignition interlock systems are not an ideal solutions, says Bellehumeur. For one thing, they cost $1,300 to $2,000. They also have a low compliance rate. Judges order them, but people will break the law and drive without a licence, Bellehumeur says.
Drivers also have been known to try to get around the interlock systems by having a child, for example, breathe into the breathalyzer. The systems require a "retest" while driving, but that has been criticized as being too dangerous because the driver should be concentrating on the road..
Sensors inside the steering wheel would be invisible and the skin of the driver would automatically be tested at intermittent intervals without the driver having to take his or her eyes off the road, Bellehumeur says. The sensors can tell the difference between the byproducts of drinking alcohol and the chemical byproducts of hand sanitizer or mouthwash, he says.
The cost of getting the sensors into a steering wheel is about $200, so it should be economically feasible, especially if insurance companies offer incentives of lower insurance rates, Bellehumeur says.
Bellehumeur, who is scheduled to speak to state legislators in Florida on Monday, says the technology has potential to dramatically reduce the enormous costs of drunk driving.
When you consider the property damage, the expense of sending police and fire rescue teams to the scene of the accident, court and jail costs, and the cost of hospitalization and long-term care of people who have been brain injured, the costs are huge, Bellehumeur says. In Canada, it adds up to more than $2 billion a year, he says. "It is a cost that we cannot bear anymore."
Bellehumeur says entire families are ruined by drunk driving. He has seen quadriplegics and people in comas and personal bankruptcies. "If you saw what I have seen, you would want to do something about this."