No more drunk driving? US automakers forced to adopt life-saving tech by 2024

US auto-safety regulators announced Tuesday that they had begun the process that would eventually force carmakers to adopt new technology to prevent intoxicated drivers from starting vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued an “advance notice of proposed rulemaking” to start gathering information and public comments on how to develop, legally require and deploy technology to prevent impaired people from firing up their vehicles.

“Please bring your best ideas, your research – let’s join together to advance as quickly as we can the next technology in impaired driving prevention,” said the deputy transportation secretary, Polly Trottenberg.

The NHTSA’s regulatory notice summarizes existing research and details what technological advancements would be needed to finalize regulations and options for potential rules, citing “blood alcohol content detection, impairment-detection (driver monitoring), or a combination”.

In 2021, Congress directed the NHTSA to mandate a passive technology to try to avert more than 10,000 road deaths annually. In 2021, 13,384 people died in alcohol-impaired driving traffic deaths, the most recent statistics available. The law requires a technology safety standard by November 2024 if the technology is ready.

A number of technologies currently under development could potentially fit the bill, including breath- or touch-based sensors to detect alcohol. Another potential option is using cameras to monitor eye movements to try to determine whether drivers are intoxicated. Some sentences for driving under the influence require those convicted to install a breathalyzer in their cars that prevent them from starting the vehicle if alcohol is detected, though regulators said it’s unlikely future ubiquitous technology would be as intrusive as requiring a puff every time. In the 1970s, Congress mandated that cars not start without a buckled seatbelt but withdrew the statute soon after it became law.

Seeing an alcohol-detecting steering wheel in your next Uber ride might be a long way off, though. NHTSA’s notice said that the agency must be assured the technology works consistently before it can require it, and then give automakers at least three years to implement it once it finalizes the rules.

“We are trying to see, can we get it done, does the technology exist in a way that is going to work every time,” said Ann Carlson, the acting NHTSA administrator, adding that public acceptance of the technology would depend on its accuracy.

Carlson said there were close to 1bn daily driving journeys in the United States.

“If it’s [only] 99.9% accurate, you could have a million false positives,” Carlson said. “Those false positives could be somebody trying to get to the hospital for an emergency.”

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Tess Rowland, the president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), said the group was “very pleased” with NHTSA’s launch.

“We understand we still have a mountain to climb,” Rowland said. “Victims and survivors are not going to let this die.”

Carlson will tell a US House of Representatives committee on Wednesday that US traffic deaths fell 4.5% in the first nine months of the year after sharply rising during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“While we are optimistic that we’re finally seeing a reversal of the record-high fatalities seen during the pandemic, this is not a cause for celebration,” Carlson’s written testimony says.


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