NTSB wants all new vehicles to test drivers for alcohol use

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The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all new vehicles in the US have blood alcohol monitoring systems that can prevent an intoxicated person from driving.

The recommendation, if enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, a leading cause of US highway deaths.

The new push to make roads safer was included in a report released Tuesday about a horrific accident last year in which a drunk driver collided head-on with another vehicle near Fresno, California, killing two adult drivers and seven children.

NHTSA said this week that road deaths in the US are at crisis levels . Nearly 43,000 people died last year, the most in 16 years, as Americans returned to the roads after pandemic stay-at-home orders.

Early estimates show deaths rose again during the first half of this year, but fell from April to June, which authorities expect to be a trend.

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

β€œWe need NHTSA to act. We look at the numbers,” NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said. “We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to save lives.”

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

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

But Homendy says he also understands that perfecting alcohol tests will take time. “We also know that it will take time for NHTSA to assess 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 been jointly funding alcohol control research since 2008, forming a group called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety.

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

Another company is working on lightweight technology that could test blood alcohol on a person’s finger, he said. Breathing technology could be ready by the end of 2024, with touch technology coming about a year later.

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

Once the technology is ready, it will take years for it to be in most of the estimated 280 million vehicles on US roads.

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

The legislation does not specify the technology, only that it must “passively monitor” a driver to determine if they are impaired.

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

In the fatal crash included in the report, a 28-year-old SUV driver was driving home from a 2021 New Year’s party where he had been drinking. 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 van was transporting Gabriela Pulido, 34, and seven children, ages 6 to 15, home from 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 California legal limit. He also had marijuana in his system, but the agency said the alcohol was more than enough to seriously affect his driving. The SUV was traveling 88 to 98 miles per hour (142 to 158 kilometers per hour), according to the report.

The accident occurred less than a second after the Journey reentered the roadway, giving Pulido little time to avoid the collision, the NTSB said.

Juan Pulido, 37, whose wife and four children died in the crash, said he’s happy the NTSB is pushing to monitor alcohol because it could prevent someone else from losing loved ones. β€œIt’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 heartache and billions in hospital treatment costs.

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