The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending that all new vehicles in the US be equipped with blood alcohol monitoring systems that can prevent a drunk person from driving.
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The recommendation, if enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could reduce the number of alcohol-related accidents, one of the biggest causes of highway deaths in the US.
The new push to make roads safer was included in a report released Tuesday about a horrific accident last year in which a drunk driver collided with another vehicle near Fresno, California, in which adult drivers and seven Both the children had died.
NHTSA said this week that road fatalities in the US are low crisis level, Nearly 43,000 people died last year, the largest number in 16 years, as Americans returned to the streets following the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders.
Early estimates suggest deaths are rising again in the first half of this year, but have declined from April to June, a trend that officials expect.
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The NTSB, which has no regulatory authority and can only ask other agencies to act, said the recommendation is designed to put pressure on NHTSA to proceed. It may already be in effect three years from now.
“We need NHTSA to function. We see the numbers,” said NTSB President Jennifer Homendy. “We need to make sure we are doing everything we can to save lives.”
That said, the NTSB has been pushing NHTSA to explore alcohol monitoring technology since 2012. “The faster the technology is implemented, the more lives will be saved,” she said.
The recommendation also tells the system to monitor the driver’s behavior, making sure they are on alert. She said many cars now have driver-mounted cameras, which have the potential to limit poor driving.
But Homendy says she also understands that completing alcohol tests will take time. “We also know that NHTSA will take time to evaluate what technologies are available and how to develop a standard.”
A message was left on Tuesday seeking comment from NHTSA.
The agency and a group of 16 automakers have been jointly funding research on alcohol monitoring since 2008, creating a group called Driver Alcohol Detection Systems for Safety.
Group spokesman Jake McCook said the group has hired a Swedish company to research technology that will automatically test a driver’s breath for alcohol and stop the vehicle from moving if the driver malfunctions. McCook said the driver would not have to blow into the tube, and a sensor would check the driver’s breathing.
He said another company is working on light technology that can test for blood alcohol in a person’s finger. The breath technology could be ready by the end of 2024, while the touch technology would come about a year later.
McCook said it could take another model year or two for automakers to get the technology for this in new vehicles.
Once the technology is ready, it will take years for it to be in most of the roughly 280 million vehicles on American roads.
Under last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, Congress required NHTSA to require automakers to install alcohol monitoring systems within three years. The agency can ask for an extension. It has been slow to implement such requirements in the past.
The law does not specify the technology, only that the driver must “passively monitor” them to determine if they are faulty.
In 2020, the most recent available figure, 11,654 people died in alcohol-related accidents, according to NHTSA data. This accounts for about 30% of all US traffic deaths, the NTSB said, and a 14% increase over the 2019 figures, the last year before the coronavirus pandemic.
In the reported fatal accident, the 28-year-old driver of an SUV was on his way home from a 2021 New Year’s party where he was drinking. The SUV veered off the right side of State Route 33, crossed the center line and collided with a Ford F-150 pickup truck near Avenal, California.
The pickup was carrying 34-year-old Gabriella Pulido and seven children, aged 6 to 15, home after a trip to Pismo Beach. The NTSB said the truck caught fire quickly and passersby could not save the passengers.
The SUV driver had a blood alcohol level of 0.21%, nearly three times the California legal limit. He also had marijuana in his system, but the agency said the alcohol was more than enough to seriously impair his driving. The report said the SUV was traveling at 88 to 98 mph (142 to 158 kph).
The NTSB said the accident occurred less than a second after Journey re-entered the road, giving Pulido time to avoid a collision.
Juan Pulido, 37, whose wife and four children were killed in the crash, said he was glad the NTSB was pushing for alcohol monitoring because it could prevent another person from losing loved ones. “It’s something their families have to live with,” he said. “It won’t go away tomorrow.”
Pulido’s lawyer, Paul Kiesel, says driver monitoring systems could also prevent accidents caused by medical problems or drowsiness, saving hospital treatment costs and billions.