October 6, 2022

The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all new vehicles in the US be equipped with blood alcohol monitoring systems that can prevent a drunk person from driving.

The recommendation, if enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, one of the leading causes of U.S. highway deaths

A new push to make roads safer was included in a report released Tuesday on a horrific crash last year in which a drunken driver collided head-on with another vehicle near Fresno, killing the adult drivers and seven children.

The NHTSA said this week that the number of deaths on US roads is at an all-time high crisis levels. Nearly 43,000 people were killed last year, the highest number in 16 years, as Americans returned to the roads following pandemic stay-at-home orders.

Initial estimates show the number of deaths rising again in the first half of this year but falling from April to June, which authorities hope is a trend.

The NTSB, which has no regulatory authority and can only ask other agencies to act, said the recommendation was designed to pressure NHTSA to move. It could be effective three years from now.

“We need NHTSA to act. We’re seeing the numbers,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said. “We have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to save lives.”

The NTSB, she said, has been pushing NHTSA to investigate alcohol monitoring technology since 2012. “The faster the technology is implemented, the more lives will be saved,” she said.

The recommendation also calls for systems to monitor driver behavior, making sure they are alert. She said many cars now have cameras aimed at the driver, which have the potential to limit impaired driving.

But Homendy said she also understands that breathalyzers will take time to perfect. “We also know that NHTSA will need time to evaluate what technologies are available and how to develop a standard.”

A message was left Tuesday seeking comment from NHTSA.

The agency and a group of 16 automakers have jointly funded alcohol monitoring research since 2008, forming a group called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety.

The group has hired a Swedish company to research technology that would automatically test a driver’s breath for alcohol and stop the vehicle from moving if the driver is impaired, said Jake McCook, a spokesman for the group. The driver would not have to blow into the pipe, and the sensor would check the driver’s breath, McCook said.

Another company is working on light technology that could test blood alcohol in a person’s finger, he said. The breathing technology could be ready by the end of 2024, while the touch technology would come about a year later.

It could take another car model year or two after automakers get the technology to find it in new vehicles, McCook said.

When the technology is ready, it will take years to find its way into most of the approximately 280 million vehicles on the road in the US.

Under last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, Congress required NHTSA to force automakers to install alcohol-monitoring systems within three years. The agency may request an extension. In the past, adoption of such requirements has been slow.

The legislation does not specify the technology, only that it must “passively monitor” the driver to determine whether he is impaired.

In 2020, the most recent data available, 11,654 people died in alcohol-related crashes, according to NHTSA. That’s about 30% of all U.S. traffic deaths and a 14% increase from 2019 figures, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic, the NTSB said.

In the fatal crash included in the report, the 28-year-old driver of the SUV was heading home from a 2021 New Year’s party where he had been drinking. The SUV went off the right side of State Route 33, crossed the center line and struck a Ford F-150 truck near Avenal, California.

The truck was carrying 34-year-old Gabriela Pulido and seven children, ages 6 to 15, after a trip to Pismo Beach. The truck quickly caught fire and bystanders were unable to save the passengers, the NTSB said.

The SUV driver’s blood alcohol level was 0.21%, nearly 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 SUV was traveling between 88 and 98 miles per hour, according to the report.

The crash happened less than a second after the Dodge Journey re-entered the road, giving Pulido no time to avoid the collision, the NTSB said.

Juan Pulido, 37, whose wife and four children died in the crash, said he’s glad the NTSB is insisting on alcohol monitoring because it could prevent another person from losing a loved one. “It’s something their families have to live with,” he said. “It doesn’t go away tomorrow.”

Pulido’s attorney, Paul Kiesel, says driver monitoring systems could also stop crashes caused by medical problems or drowsiness, saving aggravation and billions of dollars in hospital treatment costs.

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