Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Car safety agency takes step toward requiring anti-drunk driving tech (WaPo)

Good news.  We could save 10,000 lives every year.  Thank you, President Biden and Congress for progress.   

Car safety agency takes step toward requiring anti-drunk driving tech

The infrastructure law called for systems that would stop people from driving drunk, and regulators are exploring how to mandate them in new cars

A sign warns motorists as they approach a sobriety checkpoint on State Route 4 in Fairfield, Ohio. (Glenn Hartong/The Enquirer/AP)
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The federal car safety agency on Tuesday took a significant step toward requiring that new vehicles be equipped with sensors to detect whether a driver is under the influence of alcohol and prevent them from pulling away, technology that experts say could save thousands of lives each year.

Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg announced that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was issuing a summaryof its research and a call for public comments that would inform the agency’s approach to developing safety standards.

“We’re doing this because we know the need is great,” she said. “We’re going to call on everyone, our advocate partners, academics and innovators in the technology space. 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.”

Researchers have been developing technology to passively detect whether someone is under the influence when they get behind the wheel, meaning cars wouldn’t have to come equipped with breathalyzers. Requiring it on new vehicles could significantly lower the death toll on the nation’s roads, but the systems aren’t ready for deployment. A mandate would alter drivers’ relationships with their cars, effectively giving vehicles a veto over whether someone is fit to drive, and regulators acknowledge that the sensors would probably need to work flawlessly to gain acceptance.

Despite the challenges, officials and safety advocates say the approach has vast potential. More than 13,000 people were killed in crashes involving a drunk driver in 2021, the most recent figure available. The annual toll jumped as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, accounting for almost one-third of crash deaths.

An analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded that mandating detection technology could save 10,000 lives a year.

New technology mandate in infrastructure bill could significantly cut drunken driving deaths

Congress required the adoption of the technology two years ago as part of the infrastructure law, setting an initial deadline of November 2024 for regulations to be adopted. It is unlikely regulators will meet that date, and the document that NHTSA issued Tuesday underscores the work needed before a mandate could be imposed. While it sketches out approaches the agency could take, the document asks the public to weigh in on basic questions about what form the technology should take and how it should work.

“NHTSA’s information gathering and research efforts have found that several technologies show promise for detecting various states of impairment, which for the purposes of this notice are alcohol, drowsiness, and distraction,” the agency wrote. “However, technological challenges, such as distinguishing between different impairment states, avoiding false positives, and determining appropriate prevention countermeasures, remain.”

The federal government and the automotive industry have jointly backed a research partnership into alcohol detection technology since 2008, exploring systems that use breath or touch sensors to determine the level of alcohol in a driver’s blood. Robert Strassburger, chief executive of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, said the group has tested an initial version of its technology and aims to have a device that would comply with the law by the end of 2025.

“It’s exciting to see this starting to come together,” he said.

Regulators also acknowledge that the technology would need the public’s support.

In the 1970s, regulators mandated a similar approach to seat belts, requiring that cars be equipped with a system that would disable the engine if the driver wasn’t buckled. But in the face of a consumer backlash, Congress quickly repealed the rule.

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Ann Carlson, NHTSA’s acting leader, said even a system that was 99.9 percent accurate could generate 1 million false positives per day, leaving sober people unable drive.

“It could be absolutely life-altering if we can get technology in place that works every single time to prevent somebody impaired getting behind the wheel,” Carlson said. “But we’ve got to make sure that it’s not preventing people who aren’t impaired from getting to where they need to go.”

While lawmakers approved the mandate as part of the infrastructure law, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) last month tried to amend an annual funding bill to block NHTSA from moving forward with writing the rules. The amendment narrowly failed a vote on the House floor.

The technology has bipartisan support, spearheaded by lawmakers personally affected by drunken driving or moved by constituents’ stories. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) attended the announcement at the Transportation Department’s headquarters Tuesday, recounting his experience of being hit by a drunk driver 31 years ago.

“I’m here today, thank God, but not everyone is,” Luján said.

The mandate also has the support of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose leaders say they are lending their support to a vehicle safety regulation for the first time after decades of campaigning to change driver behavior. Tess Rowland, the organization’s president, said the group would continue to put pressure on regulators to issue final rules.

“We understand that we still have the mountain to climb, but we intend to meet the deadline of November 2024,” Rowland said. “Victims and survivors are not going to let this die.”

Ian Duncan is a reporter covering federal transportation agencies and the politics of transportation. He previously worked at the Baltimore Sun for seven years, covering city hall, the military and criminal justice. He was part of the Sun's team covering Freddie Gray's death in 2015 and then-Mayor Catherine Pugh's Healthy Holly books scandal.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I bet the GOP wishes that Ernesto Torres vehicle had this technology. No, scratch that idea, they don't care because he wasn't rich.