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Infrastructure law has a mandate for tech to stop drunken drivers

But passing a law is one thing — implementing it is quite another

Family members of drunken driving victims hold pictures of their loved ones during a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) rally in Upper Senate Park in 2012.
Family members of drunken driving victims hold pictures of their loved ones during a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) rally in Upper Senate Park in 2012. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In the months after her sister and brother-in-law and their three children died in a January 2019 crash caused by a drunken driver, Rana Abbas Taylor, consumed by grief, traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk to lawmakers about her loss.

In the midst of that visit, Stephanie Manning, the chief government affairs officer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, turned to Abbas Taylor. Her sister and her sister’s family, Manning vowed, would be the “reason we’re going to save thousands of lives in this country.”

Now, nearly three years after her loss, Abbas Taylor is closer than ever to seeing that promise come to fruition.

A provision in the 2,702-page bipartisan infrastructure law requires automakers to install anti-drunken driving technology into new automobiles as soon as 2026.

If successful, the law predicts, it could ultimately eliminate some 9,400 of the more than 10,000 drunken-driving deaths in the U.S. each year.

“Truly, this can’t happen fast enough,” said Alex Otte, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

But passing a law is one thing. Implementing it is quite another.

Airbags, first available in the early 1970s, were made mandatory by a 1991 law, with full compliance for all passenger cars not coming until model year 1998 and in all SUVs, pickups and vans until model year 1999.

Rearview cameras, first introduced in 1956 as part of the Buick Centurion concept car, didn’t become required in new vehicles until 1998. That law wasn’t fully implemented until 2018.

Multiple technologies

This time, there are multiple ways technology can curb drunken or impaired driving, with Mothers Against Drunk Driving offering more than 240 options to federal regulators.

But advocates fear that arguments over which technology to adopt and bureaucratic hurdles may result in a slow walk to progress that could cost valuable lives.

“There are many roadblocks on the path between now and this being implemented,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We fully were aware that getting this passed by Congress was a big step, but it’s only the first step.”

The drunken-driving technology provision, which falls under the $11 billion road safety portion of the bill, would require the Department of Transportation to issue a rule prescribing a drunken-driving technology safety standard within three years. The bill gives automakers two years to comply but includes language allowing the secretary of Transportation some flexibility if necessary.

Because the bill doesn’t specify what technology automakers should use, critics have wondered if the legislation will lead to automakers installing Breathalyzers in every vehicle or technology that consumers would find invasive.

But the law specifies that the technology must be passive, meaning drivers won’t be required to breathe into a Breathalyzer to get the car to start or deploy an ignition interlock system that requires a motorist to blow into a device.

“You will never have to get in your car and do something for your car to start,” said Otte, who said the ignition interlock system is a “punitive” measure designed for someone who has already been caught driving drunk.

But critics say that there isn’t a fool-proof substitute.

“Reliable passive alcohol detection technology does not exist,” Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, wrote in an email. “And it is unclear when or even if it will exist in the future. Despite its best efforts, Congress cannot simply will it into existence.”

Researchers have long been looking at different solutions. In 2008, the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, which represents 17 automotive manufacturers, entered a partnership with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop alcohol detection technologies to prevent drunken drivers from operating vehicles.

Among the technologies the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, or DADSS program, is researching is a passive system that would instantly detect if a driver has been drinking by analyzing ambient air. The group is also studying a touch-based system that would measure blood alcohol levels under the skin’s surface by shining an infrared light through the fingertip of the driver. Neither technology has been deployed by commercial automakers.

But Ken Snyder, a volunteer for MADD who lost his daughter Katie in a 2017 crash caused by a drunken driver, argues that automakers are already including technology in vehicles that can detect drunken, impaired or distracted drivers. In fact, he argues, such technology is an often-unmentioned perk of the surge in autonomous-vehicle technology.

There are two basic types that Snyder says are ready for deployment now: One, a system that integrates sensors outside of vehicles, detects if drivers are veering out of their lane or appear to not be in full control over their vehicle.

The other, driver monitoring systems, uses in-car cameras to determine if a driver takes their eyes off the road, for example, or appears to be nodding off.

Currently, the technology offers primarily warnings or, in the case of the sensors, automatic braking. But Snyder said a simple coding tweak would turn that existing technology into true lifesavers, with cars that now gently remind drivers of their errors, or pull over in extreme cases.

For her part, Chase said the billions of dollars the auto industry has spent developing autonomous vehicles could be part of the solution. “The technology is there,” she said. “They’re all more or less building blocks on the path to autonomous vehicles.”

Still, “it’s not going to happen overnight,” she said.

Automakers ready

For their part, however, automakers say they’ll comply, with Auto Innovators President and CEO John Bozzella saying in a written statement that the bill “furthers the possibility for advanced technologies to help address the risk of impaired driving. NHTSA, meanwhile, in a statement vowed to “work expeditiously to meet its Congressional mandates.”

But Scribner said there’s language in the law that gives regulators wiggle room.

He said the bill is written in such a way as to give the secretary of Transportation latitude on implementation, giving the secretary the ability to evade the deadline by submitting a report to Congress explaining why. Because of the state of the technology and unresolved issues, Scribner said, he believes that such a report will be the most likely outcome.

“With this mandate, Congress has most likely just mandated another future report to itself,” he wrote.

Chase, of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, is optimistic.

“If there are ways to get out of something, I’m always worried about it,” she said. “But [the language] is somewhat standard language in legislative text.”

In 2020, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety published a study that found that more than a quarter of the traffic crash deaths that occurred between 2015 and 2018 could have been prevented if the most impaired drivers’ blood alcohol content levels had been below .08 percent, which is the legal limit in most states. That works out to some 9,409 lives saved each year.

But the author of that study, Charles Farmer, vice president of research and statistical services at the IIHS, argued in his research that the rewards would not be immediate. Not every vehicle on the road, for example, is new. Using data on the age of vehicles involved in crashes, Farmer found it would be 12 years before the systems became common enough in the U.S. fleet to save roughly 4,600 lives a year — less than half their potential.

Still, Farmer said in an interview, drunken-driving prevention technology has the potential to save more lives than even airbags or seat belts do (frontal airbags saved 2,790 lives in 2017, according to the NHTSA). The key, he said, is employing technology that can stop as many impaired drivers as possible.

He’s skeptical that existing driver monitoring technology can catch every drunken driver — “it’s not guaranteed that you can tell somebody is drunk by looking at them” — but argues getting some sort of preventative technology in place is crucial.

“I want them to do what we know can be done,” he said. “We have these solutions and somebody has to get out there and implement these.”

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