New vehicle mandates could help curb drunken driving

Hope Yen and Tom Krisher
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congress has created a new requirement for automakers: Find a high-tech way to keep drunken people from driving cars.

It’s one of the mandates along with a burst of new spending aimed at improving auto safety amid escalating road fatalities in the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden is expected to sign soon.

Under the legislation, monitoring systems to stop intoxicated drivers would roll out in all new vehicles as early as 2026, after the Transportation Department assesses the best form of technology to install in millions of vehicles and automakers are given time to comply.

‘Monumental’ step: In all, about $17 billion is allotted to road safety programs, the biggest increase in such funding in decades, according to the Eno Center for Transportation. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says that could mean more protected bike paths and greener spaces built into busy roadways.

“It’s monumental,” said Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Otte called the package the “single most important legislation” in the group’s history that marks “the beginning of the end of drunk driving.”

“It will virtually eliminate the No. 1 killer on America’s roads,” she said.

Traffic deaths: Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported an estimated 20,160 people died in traffic crashes in the first half of 2021, the highest first-half total since 2006. The agency has pointed to speeding, impaired driving and not wearing seat belts as factors.

Each year, around 10,000 people are killed because of alcohol-related crashes in the U.S., making up nearly 30% of all traffic fatalities, according to NHTSA.

Currently, some convicted drunken drivers must use Breathalyzer devices attached to an ignition interlock, blowing into a tube and disabling the vehicle if their blood alcohol level is too high. The legislation doesn’t specify the technology, only that it must “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.”

Technology: Sam Abuelsamid, principal mobility analyst for Guidehouse Insights, said the most likely system to prevent drunken driving is infrared cameras that monitor driver behavior. That technology is already being installed by automakers such as General Motors, BMW and Nissan to track driver attentiveness while using partially automated driver-assist systems.

The cameras make sure a driver is watching the road, and they look for signs of drowsiness, loss of consciousness or impairment.

If signs are spotted, the cars will warn the driver, and if the behavior persists, the car would turn on its hazard lights, slow down and pull to the side of the road.

Abuelsamid said Breathalyzers aren’t a practical solution because many people would object to being forced to blow into a tube every time they get into the car.

The bill also requires automakers to install rear-seat reminders to alert parents if a child is left inadvertently in the car, a mandate that could begin by 2025 after NHTSA completes rulemaking on the issue.