DETROIT — The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all new vehicles in the United States should have 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 accidents, one of the biggest causes of deaths on US highways.
The new push to make roads safer was included in a report released Tuesday of a horrific accident last year in which a drunk driver crashed into the front of another vehicle near Fresno, California, killing the two adult drivers and seven children.
The NHTSA said this week that US road deaths are at crisis levels. Nearly 43,000 people were killed last year, the most in 16 years, as Americans got back on the roads following pandemic orders to stay at home.
Initial estimates suggest the death toll rose again during the first half of this year, but declined from April through 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 is designed to pressure the NHTSA to act. It could be effective as soon as three years from now.
“We need the NHTSA to work. We are seeing the numbers,” said Jennifer Homeendy, NTSB chairperson. “We need to make sure we are doing everything we can to save lives.”
She said the NTSB has been pushing the NHTSA to explore 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, and make sure they are alerted. She said many cars now have driver-focused cameras, which have the potential to reduce impediment to driving.
But Homendy says she also understands that it will take time to master the alcohol tests. “We also know that it will take time for NHTSA to evaluate the available technologies and how to develop a standard.”
A message was left on Tuesday requesting comment from the NHTSA.
The agency and a group of 16 auto manufacturers have funded joint research on alcohol monitoring since 2008, to form a group called the Drivers Alcohol Detection System for Safety.
Jake McCook, a spokesman for the group, said the group had hired a Swedish company to research technology that would automatically test a driver’s breath for alcohol and stop the car from moving if the driver was disabled. McCook said the driver wouldn’t have to blow into a tube, and a sensor would check the driver’s breath.
He said another company is working on light technology that could test the blood alcohol level on a person’s finger. Breath technology could be ready by the end of 2024, while touch technology will come about a year later.
It could take another year or two for the models after automakers get the technology to be in new cars, McCook said.
Once the technology is ready, it will take years for it to be in most of the roughly 280 million vehicles on US roads.
Under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act last year, Congress required the NHTSA to have automakers install alcohol monitoring systems within three years. The agency can seek an extension. In the past it was slow to enact such requirements.
The legislation does not specify the technology, the driver should only be passively “monitored” to determine if it is malfunctioning.
In 2020, the latest available figures, 11,654 people died in alcohol-related accidents, according to NHTSA data. That’s about 30% of all road traffic deaths in the United States, and a 14% increase over 2019 numbers, the last full year before the coronavirus pandemic, the NTSB said.
In the fatal accident included in the report, a 28-year-old SUV driver was heading home from a 2021 New Year’s Eve party where he was drinking. The SUV veered off the right-hand side of State Route 33, crossed the center line and crashed into a Ford F-150 pickup truck head-on near Avignal, California.
The truck was carrying 34-year-old Gabriella Pulido and seven children aged 6 to 15 at home after a trip to Pismo Beach. The office said the truck quickly caught fire and pedestrians were unable to rescue the passengers.
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 severely impair his driving. The report said the SUV was traveling from 88 to 98 mph (142 to 158 kph).
The National Transportation Safety Board said the accident occurred in less than a second from the moment the flight re-entered the road, giving Pulido no time to avoid the collision.
Juan Pulido, 37, whose wife and four children were killed in the accident, said he was glad the NTSB was pushing for alcohol control because it could prevent another person from losing loved ones. “It’s something their families have to live with,” he said. “You won’t go away tomorrow.”
Pulido’s attorney, Paul Kessel, says driver monitoring systems can also stop crashes caused by medical problems or drowsiness, saving anguish and billions in hospital costs.
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