New law would put alcohol detectors in cars to stop drunk driving in US

Safety advocates hope devices will become as standard as air bags

Thursday 17 October 2019 17:08
Ignition interlocks prevent the vehicle from operating if the driver is impaired
Ignition interlocks prevent the vehicle from operating if the driver is impaired

A new push is underway for federal legislation that would require new US vehicles to have alcohol-detecting devices that stop drunken drivers before they get on the road.

The measure, backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), would require manufacturers to build cars and trucks with passive detection systems that prevent the vehicle from operating if the driver is impaired.

Such devices, known as ignition interlocks, are in widespread use for those charged or convicted of drunken driving; they require the driver to exhale into a Breathaylser-like device and prevent the car from starting if a person's blood alcohol level is above the legal limit.

But researchers and engineers have been working to develop newer technology that would obtain instantaneous and precise readings of every driver's blood alcohol level when the driver attempts to start the vehicle.

Safety advocates hope the technology will become as standard as air bags. Limited road testing has been underway in Maryland and Virginia.

The Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone Act, or RIDE Act, co-sponsored by Senators Tom Udall and Rick Scott, could provide additional funding for continued research and road-testing of passive detection systems and set a timeline of about four years to put the technology on the market.

It would also commit $25m (£19.5m) for the federal government to test such devices in its massive fleet of vehicles as early as fiscal 2021.

Similar legislation has been introduced by congresswoman Debbie Dingell in the House.

"It's clear the time for research is over," Helen Witty, MADD's president, said on Wednesday during a news conference that was streamed on Facebook and attended by the relatives of an entire Michigan family that was killed in an alcohol-related crash in Kentucky this year.

The Auto Alliance, an industry organisation, welcomed additional efforts by the government to reduce drunken driving but also expressed uneasiness about a mandated time frame to require the use of technology that has not yet been perfected.

Nearly 11,000 people were killed as a result of drunken driving in 2017, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says. On average, that works out to a death about every 48 minutes.

Among the victims are people such as the Abbas family, who were killed when a suspected drunken driver headed the wrong way on Interstate 75 and struck the family's vehicle on 6 January.

The crash killed Issam Abbas, his wife, Rima, and their children Ali, Isabella and Giselle. The suspected drunken driver also died.

William Mirza offered a tribute to his uncle, who he said had been a role model. Mr Mirza also urged immediate action to end drunken driving.

"Drunken driving is an atrocious cancer that has plagued our nation for far too long," he said. "It is time that we take a hard look at ourselves and ask if we have been doing everything to protect and serve the citizens of this country. Because the fact of the matter is, if we had, my family - and countless other families would still be here right now."

NHTSA has spent $50m (£39m) in the effort to develop technology that would reliably and quickly determine whether a driver is impaired.

These efforts include a government-funded research programme involving more than a dozen car manufactuers to develop the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS).

Some advocates have accused the automotive industry and federal transportation officials of moving too slowly to implement DADSS or something like it in the marketplace.

Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and president emeritus of Public Citizen, said action by the federal government would spur the industry to move faster to make the technology available.

"This is one of the most exciting issues I've ever seen for alcohol issues, [and] I've been working on them since 1966," she said. Yet, she said, the automakers have been "slow-walking" the introduction of potentially lifesaving technology, especially compared with billions spent on developing autonomous vehicles.

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Some manufactures have taken steps towards developing and using technology that could be used to combat drunken driving.

In 2015, Jaguar announced a project known as Sixth Sense that would monitor the driver's heartbeat, among other things, to determine whether the person was fatigued or distracted. In March, Volvo said it would instal in-car cameras and sensors to monitor whether a driver was impaired.

The Auto Alliance said legislation could help move the process along, but not without funding.

"While efforts to help spur that commercial scale deployment are appreciated, they cannot be realised without continued congressional funding of the public-private partnership between the US Department of Transportation and automakers, currently scheduled to expire in September of 2020," Auto Alliance spokesman Wade Newton said in an email.

"Sustaining this program, which is currently testing and validating the DADSS technology, is vital to completing the work necessary to achieve commercialization."

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