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Inventor granted $1.46M for drunk-driver sensor

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WINDSOR, Ont. -- A company started by an Ontario inventor has received $1.46 million from the federal government to develop a steering-wheel sensor aimed at reducing drunk driving.

Dennis Bellehumeur, a University of Windsor-trained neuro-clinical psychologist, received the federal support for his invention Friday from Conservative MP Jeff Watson.

At a news conference, Watson said the cash will go to the company Bellehumeur founded, Sober Steering Sensors, to develop and commercialize the device.

Bellehumeur said the company will team with a Windsor manufacturer to develop the product.

He said about 120 people could be hired by October. His company is in production talks with Windsor steering-wheel manufacturer KS Centoco.

"The company will stay in Windsor to keep the jobs here, because that's important to me," Bellehumeur said. "So it will be built here, but we hope to reach the world."

Bellehumeur, who has been involved for 20 years in brain-injury rehabilitation and sits on several boards related to alcoholism and traumatic brain injuries, said it was this work that led him to develop the device. It fits invisibly into a steering wheel and uses sensors to detect alcohol levels through the driver's hands. If the alcohol exceeds the legal limit, the car's transmission locks and the vehicle is immobilized.

Bellehumeur said he hopes the sensor eventually will become standard equipment on cars. He said jurisdictions in the U.S., Canada and Europe already use some type of interlock system to prevent convicted drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel. But U.S. Justice Department statistics show 89 per cent of repeat offenders do not comply with court orders to install interlock systems, even though they have been proven to reduce drunk-driving arrests by 65 per cent, Bellehumeur said.

He said the reason offenders cite for defying the courts is that a typical system is based on breath analysis and the stigma not only reflects on the driver, but the motorist's family. His invention eliminates that stigma because it's "embedded" in the steering wheel, making it invisible to passengers and tamper-proof as well. He said it's sensitive enough to measure alcohol in the system within two minutes of consumption. Bellehumeur said legislators and the insurance industry in Europe have expressed interest.

In Canada, the need is self-evident, he said. "It's a big and evolving problem," Bellehumeur said. "A Canadian study shows 76 per cent of the population feels it's (drunk driving) the No. 1 social problem, (with) over 200 deaths a year in Ontario."

Bellehumeur applied for the patent 15 years ago and his invention has been approved in Canada, the U.S. and internationally. He said the device has been developed at the University of Windsor, St. Clair College and other institutions.

He said the cost has been cut to about $200 a unit, down from $1,300 just two years ago. It can be installed in cars, trucks, motor boats, motorcycles and snowmobiles.

-- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2010 B9

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