NTSB wants all new vehicles to test drivers for alcohol | Technologies

By TOM KRISHER, AP Auto Writer

DETROIT (AP) — The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending that all new vehicles in the U.S. be equipped with blood-alcohol monitoring systems that can prevent drunk people from driving.

If adopted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, this recommendation could reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, which are one of the leading causes of death on US highways.

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

NHTSA said this week that US road deaths are 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.

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Early estimates show that the number of deaths rose again in the first half of this year, but fell from April to June in what authorities hope is a trend.

The NTSB, which has no regulatory authority and can only ask other agencies to take action, said the recommendation was intended to pressure NHTSA to move. It can be effective in as little as three years.

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

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

The recommendation also requires the systems to monitor driver behavior to ensure they are alert. She said many cars now have cameras aimed at the driver, which can limit driving.

But Khomendi says she also understands that perfecting the breathalyzer tests will take time. “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 research on alcohol monitoring 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 the vehicle if the driver is impaired, said Jake McCook, a spokesman for the group. The driver would not have to blow into the tube, and the sensor would check the driver’s breath, McCook said.

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

McCook said it could take another model year or two after automakers get the technology ready for use in new vehicles.

Once the technology is ready, it will take years before it appears in most of the approximately 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 may seek an extension. In the past, such requests have been very slow.

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

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

In the reported fatal crash, the 28-year-old driver of the SUV was on his way home from a 2021 New Year’s Eve party where he had been drinking. The SUV went 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 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 driver of the SUV had a blood alcohol level of 0.21%, which is almost three times the legal limit in California. He also had marijuana in his system, but the agency said there was more than enough alcohol to severely impair his driving. The SUV was traveling between 88 and 98 miles per hour (142 to 158 kilometers per hour), the report said.

The crash happened less than a second after the 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 pushing for 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’s not going away tomorrow.”

Pulido’s lawyer, Paul Kiesel, says driver monitoring systems can also stop accidents caused by medical problems or drowsiness, saving suffering and billions in hospital costs.

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