Cars and Trucks

Congress Could Mandate Anti–Drunk Driving Technology in New Cars

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  • Technology that stops a car from operating when the driver is drunk could be required as part of the trillion-dollar infrastructure package, if that bill passes.
  • Automakers would have three years to install this technology in their vehicles, and NHTSA will need to make sure the technology works.
  • Automakers have thought about this in the past. A 2007 concept car from Nissan could sense alcohol on the shifter or in the air, and also monitored the driver for signs of drunken driving.

    The U.S. Congress is working on a $78 billion surface transportation bill as part of the larger $1 trillion infrastructure package. The bipartisan bill includes a significant safety provision that will aim to reduce the number of impaired drivers behind the wheel if it becomes law. Around 10,000 people are killed each year due to alcohol-related crashes in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

    Alongside funding for Amtrak and electric vehicles (among many other things), the bill would establish a new “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology safety standard.” This standard would go into effect at least three years after the bill is signed and will require new vehicles to have technology that prevents impaired drivers from being able to operate them. This new legislation is similar to previous bills introduced in Congress, such as one in 2019 that aimed to install alcohol detection systems by 2024.

    The bill doesn’t specify what kind of anti-impaired driving technology would be part of this standard, just that NHTSA will verify that it’s effective. Currently, ignition-interlock devices with breathalyzers that prevent the driver from starting the car if alcohol is detected are commonly used in the U.S. for those who have been convicted of drunk driving.

    For other clues on how this might work, we can look back at a concept car Nissan built in 2007 that featured multiple technologies that could do the trick. Nissan’s concept, built from a production Fuga sedan, used a hi-sensitivity sensor in the transmission shift knob that could detect alcohol in the driver’s perspiration. Other sensors could detect alcohol in the air in the cabin, and the car itself could monitor the driver’s face for signs of impairment. It would also watch for driving behaviors typical for drunk drivers, like swerving in and out of a lane. If the car detects these sorts of signs, it could immobilize the car (if it’s stopped) and issue a “drunk-driving” voice alert over the sound system. If the car is already in motion, it would tighten the seat belts to prepare for a crash. Since it’s been fourteen years since this concept was released, we can easily imagine an updated version that would use driver-assistance technology to slow down and stop the car if it were to be built today.

    The anti–drunk driving portion of the infrastructure bill is being promoted by Senator Gary Peters and Representative Debbie Dingell, both Democrats from Michigan. One of the reasons for this part of the legislation was the 2019 deaths of some members of the Abbas family, who were from Michigan, while traveling in Kentucky, according to the Detroit News.

    “We have the important technology to prevent drunk driving and save lives,” Dingell said in a statement. “It’s long past time we use it.” Mothers Against Drunk Driving also issued a statement strongly in favor of this part of the bill. “When signed into law, legislation leading to impaired driving prevention in all vehicles will be the most significant, lifesaving public policy in MADD’s history,” the group said in a statement. “It will mark the beginning of the end of drunk driving.”

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