WASHINGTON – Cars of the not-so-distant future could automatically detect whether someone is too drunk to drive under a provision tucked into the $1 trillion law to bolster the nation's infrastructure.
The new law requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration create a rule mandating that new vehicles be equipped with advanced technology to prevent drunken and impaired driving, beginning no later than 2026.
The legislation leaves it to the NHTSA to decide which technology to require, but that could include any device that prevents a driver from operating a vehicle by identifying signs of impairment or detecting a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.
Once a rule is adopted, automakers in the USA would be required to include the technology on newly manufactured vehicles.
Advocates said the change could save thousands of lives lost in drunken driving crashes every year. Drunken driving is one of the leading causes of death in motor vehicle crashes – more than 10,000 people killed each year.
It will take decades to fully realize benefits from the change, experts said, as older cars are replaced by vehicles equipped with new systems.
“It will be a long time before everybody has a vehicle with this technology, even if they started now,” said Chuck Farmer, vice president of research and statistical services at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
'Something drastic had to happen'
Drunken driving fatalities account for a shrinking share of motor vehicle deaths. The decline has been decades in the making amid marketing campaigns centering on personal responsibility and tighter enforcement.
In 1985, the 18,125 people killed in alcohol-impaired crashes made up more than 40% of all deaths from crashes that year, according to the Insurance Information Institute. That was down to 10,141 – about 28% – in 2019, the latest year for which complete data is available.
Advocates said the country has hit a plateau in the quest to eliminate drunken driving deaths, and new technology might be the key to saving more lives.
"People aren’t making the right choice even though they know the danger and the consequence," said Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "We knew that something drastic had to happen.”
Farmer said enforcement of drunken driving laws has helped reduce deaths but cannot eliminate the problem.
“You could hire more police officers. You can put them out there more often,” he said. “You’re probably not going to get half of them.”
Farmer wrote a study cited in the new law that found more than 9,000 deaths a year could be prevented by systems restricting drivers whose blood-alcohol content is over the legal limit.
Getting there could take decades. Farmer estimated that it would take 20 to 25 years for the national fleet of vehicles crisscrossing American roads to change over, and the study found it would take 12 years to reach half of the maximum benefit.
"There is public support for such vehicle-based alcohol detection systems, but they must be both seamless and reliable if they are to be accepted in privately owned vehicles," according to the report. "Systems that annoy drivers or mistakenly prevent sober drivers from traveling will not succeed."
The technology falls into three buckets: driver monitoring, driving performance monitoring and alcohol detection.
More than 240 different technologies exist in those categories, including 130 from the automakers, according to MADD.
“This technology seems like a no-brainer in terms of potential safety impact," said Russ Martin, senior director of policy and government relations at the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Driver monitoring technology uses cameras to look for the signs of impairment, such as closed eyes. Driving performance monitoring keeps an eye on what's happening outside the car, such as swerving in and out of lanes.
Passive alcohol detection systems scan the air in the car or the sweat from the driver to measure whether the motorist's blood-alcohol content is over the legal limit.
Automakers have worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation since 2008 to develop in-vehicle technologies to prevent drunken driving. The Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, a Virginia nonprofit whose members include the major automakers, expects the first version of that technology to be used in commercial vehicles in 2022.
The automobile industry is "committed to supporting public and private efforts to address this tragic threat to road safety," said John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the industry group representing automakers.
“We appreciate the efforts of congressional leaders and other stakeholders to advance a legislative approach that provides NHTSA the ability to review all potential technologies as options for federal regulation and, consistent with the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, to make a well-informed decision as to whether any specific technologies meet the standard for consumer vehicles," he said in a statement.
Advocates told USA TODAY passive alcohol detection systems are different from ignition interlocks used in many states for those convicted of drunken driving offenses because they are virtually undetectable. They don't require blowing into a pipe to start the car but rather automatically detect blood-alcohol content.
“The sober driver will never even know it's there," Otte said.
Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights and a former auto engineer, said it's "highly unlikely" automakers will install breathalyzers in vehicles.
Instead, he pointed to driver monitor systems – similar to hands-free driving systems already in many vehicles – that rely on infrared cameras mounted on the steering column or dashboard to track a driver's behavior.
Such devices are able to detect shifts in drivers' eyes, issuing alerts when their eyes veer off the road for a few seconds and automatically slowing down the car if the driver doesn't respond. Abuelsamid said the devices stop drivers who are distracted, drowsy or have medical emergencies behind the wheel.
"If you required everybody to blow into a breathalyzer every time to get into a car, I think that that would not go over well with the public," he said. "While driver-monitor systems won't prevent a drunk driver from starting a car or starting to drive, as soon as they show any signs of being incapable of driving safely, you can detect that very quickly and bring the car back to a stop."
Car models with this technology include all General Motors vehicles with Super Cruise capabilities, including the Escalade, the CT4 and CT5 and the GMC Sierra and Silverado. Ford, BMW and Nissan installed the technology in some of their car models. Abuelsamid estimated that millions of cars with infrared devices that monitor drivers will be on the road by 2026.
One risk is that intoxicated drivers could remain behind the wheel as long as they maintain alertness to avoid detection. Though "there is no foolproof technology," Abuelsamid said, a driver monitor will be far more popular among consumers than breathalyzers.
"It's certainly the most significant thing we've done from a technological standpoint (to combat drunken driving)," he said, "and I think it has the potential to be more effective than most of the laws that we've put in place so far."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's infrastructure law requires technology to stop drunken drivers