Automakers will have to install technology designed to keep drunk drivers off the road, at least if the infrastructure bill now facing a vote by the U.S. Senate is passed into law.
That’s one among a number of automotive safety measures included in the $1 trillion, 2,702-page bill that will then have to pass muster with the U.S. House before being sent to the White House for President Joe Biden’s signature.
Coming up with a way to keep impaired drivers off the road has been a challenge automakers, safety advocates and regulators have long struggled with, and a technically effective solution is yet to be found but “Every year we wait, thousands of people will die,” Stephanie Manning, government affairs officer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said in a statement.
The good news is that alcohol deaths have fallen throughout the decades. Before rigorous enforcement efforts were launched in the 1980s, intoxicated motorists were linked to half of all U.S. traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The problem still is blamed for nearly 30% of today’s highway deaths, or more than 10,000 a year. That works out to about 28 every single day.
Time to act
“We can’t wait any longer to make our roads safer from drunk driving accidents,” Michigan Democrat Debbie Dingell, a longtime proponent of anti-drunk driving legislation in the U.S. House, said in a statement. “The inclusion of my bill in the bipartisan infrastructure package will help incentivize the development and implementation of technology to stop drunk driving once and for all and save lives.”
The question is how to come up with technology that meets the demands laid out by NHTSA which says any in-car alcohol monitoring system must be “seamless, accurate and precise, and unobtrusive to the sober driver.”
The agency wants to avoid the repeat of the seatbelt interlock fiasco of the mid-1970s. The system was designed to prevent a vehicle from being started if occupants weren’t buckled up. But it was prone to malfunctions leaving drivers stranded.
There already is a system available — though it is used under court order for someone convicted of driving under the influence. The system is similar to the Breathalyzers police use when testing a suspected drunk driver. The motorist blows into a tube, their breath analyzed by sensors linked to the ignition system. If it detects alcohol, the vehicle won’t start. And a camera system is used to ensure someone else doesn’t attempt to blow into the tube instead of the driver.
A system under study at Nissan attempts to make the process a bit simpler. Instead of blowing into a tube, multiple sensors detect alcohol in cabin air. It also uses a camera atop the instrument cluster to spot facial cues signaling an inebriated driver. The vehicle itself, meanwhile, looks for driving patterns suggesting the driver is impaired.
The challenge is to ensure that the alcohol sensors are focused on the driver, not on their passengers. It would make no sense to keep a sober designated driver from taking everyone home.
That’s the same sort of challenge the government’s Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, or DADSS, program has faced. Several possible solutions are under study, including one similar to Nissan’s system, measuring alcohol in cabin air.
More promising is a DADSS system that measures blood alcohol content in the body’s capillaries by shining a light on a driver’s finger. It could be built into a vehicle’s start button or steering wheel.
A high cost
The challenge will be come up an “affordable” solution that can be built into millions of vehicles, one easy to use but able to prevent people from cheating, said Carla Bailo, the CEO of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But considering the cost to society levied by drunk driving each year — estimated at $210 billion annually according to a 2010 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — the proposed drunk driving measure has strong support from both safety advocates and the auto industry.
“The auto industry has long been committed to supporting public and private efforts to address this tragic threat to road safety,” John Bozzella, CEO of the auto industry consortium, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said in a statement. “This legislation furthers the possibility for advanced technologies to help address the risk of impaired driving.
Other safety measures
The proposed infrastructure bill includes an assortment of other safety measures. Among the most significant, it would formalize and expand upon a breakthrough industry/government agreement from January 2017 that aimed to expand the use of forward collision warning systems capable of automatically stopping a vehicle if the driver didn’t respond quickly enough. It would mandate AEB, or automatic emergency braking, on all future vehicles.
And truck manufacturers would have to introduce new ways to reduce injuries when struck in the rear by a passenger vehicle.
While some manufacturers said they will wait to comment until they see a final, compromise version of the infrastructure bill ready for Biden’s signature, others expressed initial support.
“Hyundai is consistently researching ways to improve motor vehicle safety,” Brian Latouf, the automaker’s Chief Safety Officer for North America, said in a statement sent to TheDetroitBureau.com. “The infrastructure bill currently being crafted in Congress, offers opportunities to improve safety including technologies to help address impaired drivers. Hyundai looks forward to working closely with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on new opportunities to improve roadway safety for everyone.”