The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all new vehicles in the US be fitted with blood alcohol monitoring systems, which can prevent a drunk person from driving.
The recommendation, if passed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could reduce alcohol-related crashes, one of the leading causes of death on US roads.
A new drive to make roads safer was included in a report released Tuesday of a horrific crash last year in which a drunk driver collided head-on with another vehicle near Fresno, California, killing adult drivers and seven children. .
The NHTSA said this week that road deaths in the US are at crisis levels. Nearly 43,000 people were killed last year, the highest number in 16 years that Americans have returned to the roads after being ordered to stay at home due to the pandemic.
Early estimates show that the death toll rose again in the first half of this year, but declined from April to June, which authorities hope is a trend.
The NTSB, which has no regulators and can only ask other agencies to act, said the recommendation is intended to put pressure on the NHTSA to move. It can be effective as early as three years.
“We need NHTSA to act. We are seeing numbers,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to save lives.”
The NTSB has been pushing the NHTSA to explore alcohol monitoring technology since 2012, she said. “The faster the technology is implemented, the more lives will be saved,” she said.
The recommendation also requires systems to monitor the behavior of the driver, making sure he is alert. She said many cars now have cameras aimed at the driver, which can limit drunk driving.
But Homendy says she also understands that improving 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 asking NHTSA for comment.
The agency and a group of 16 automakers have been co-funding research on alcohol monitoring since 2008, forming a group called Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety.
The group hired a Swedish company to research technology that automatically checks a driver’s breath for alcohol and stops the vehicle from moving if the driver is intoxicated, said Jake McCook, a spokesman for the group. The driver would not need to blow into the chimney, McCook said, and the sensor would check the driver’s breathing.
Another company is working on light technology that can test a person’s finger for blood alcohol content, he said. Breathing technology could be ready by the end of 2024, with sensor technology coming in about a year.
McCook said it could be another model year or two after automakers get the technology for new cars.
Once the technology is ready, it will take years for most of the approximately 280 million vehicles on US roads to use it.
Under a bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year, Congress required the NHTSA to force automakers to install alcohol monitoring systems within three years. The agency may request an extension. In the past, such requirements were introduced slowly.
The legislation does not specify the technology, only that it must “passively monitor” the driver to determine if they have an impairment.
According to the latest available data, 11,654 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2020, according to the NHTSA. That’s about 30% of all U.S. road traffic deaths and up 14% from 2019, the last full year before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the NTSB.
In the fatal crash included in the report, a 28-year-old SUV driver was heading home from a 2021 New Year’s Eve party where he was drunk. The SUV veered off the right side of State Route 33, crossed the center line, and collided head-on with a Ford F-150 pickup truck near Avenal, California.
The pickup truck was carrying home 34-year-old Gabriela Pulido and seven children aged 6 to 15 after a trip to Pismo Beach. According to the NTSB, the truck quickly caught fire and bystanders were unable to save the passengers.
The driver of the SUV had a blood alcohol level of 0.21%, almost three times the legal limit in California. He also had marijuana in his system, but the agency said the alcohol was more than enough to seriously impair his driving. The report says the SUV was traveling at 88 to 98 miles per hour (142 to 158 kilometers per hour).
According to the NTSB, the crash occurred less than a second after Journey was back on the road, giving Pulido no time to avoid the collision.
Juan Pulido, 37, whose wife and four children died in the plane crash, said he was happy the NTSB was pushing for alcohol monitoring because it could prevent another person from losing loved ones. “This is what their families have to live with,” he said. “It won’t disappear tomorrow.”
Pulido’s lawyer, Paul Kiesel, says driver monitoring systems can also prevent accidents caused by health problems or drowsiness, saving suffering and billions in hospital costs.
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