March 31, 2023

The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all new vehicles in the United States be equipped with blood alcohol monitoring systems that can prevent an intoxicated person from driving.

The recommendations, if enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, which are one of the biggest causes of highway deaths in the United States.

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

NHTSA said this week that U.S. roadway fatalities have increased The extent of the crisis. Nearly 43,000 people were killed last year, the highest number in 16 years, as Americans returned to the streets after stay-at-home orders in the pandemic.

Initial estimates show that fatalities rose again in the first half of this year, but they declined from April to June, a trend that authorities expect to follow.

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 may come into force in three years from now.

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

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

The recommendation also calls for systems to monitor driver behavior, ensuring they are alert. Many cars now have driver-facing cameras, which have the potential to limit impaired driving, he said.

But Homendi said he also understands that perfecting the alcohol test will take time. “We also recognize that it will take time for NHTSA to evaluate what technology is 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 research on alcohol monitoring since 2008, forming a group called Driver Alcohol Detection Systems 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 if the driver is impaired, said Jack McCook, a spokesman for the group. The driver won’t have to blow into a tube, and a sensor will check the driver’s breath, McCook said.

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

It could be another car-model year or two before automakers get its technology into new vehicles, McCook said.

Once the technology is ready, it will take several years to be in the roughly 280 million vehicles on US roads.

Under last year’s bipartisan Infrastructure Act, Congress forced NHTSA to require automakers to install alcohol monitoring systems within three years. The agency may seek an extension. Implementation of such requirements has been slow in the past.

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

In 2020, the most recent statistics available, 11,654 people died in alcohol-related crashes, according to NHTSA data. The NTSB says that accounts for about 30% of all US traffic deaths, and a 14% increase from 2019 figures, the full year before the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the fatal crash included in the report, the 28-year-old driver of a sport utility vehicle was driving home from a New Year’s Day 2021 party where he had been drinking. The SUV went to the right on State Route 33, crossed the center line and collided head-on with a Ford F-150 pickup truck near Avenal, Calif.

The pickup was carrying 34-year-old Gabriela Pulido and seven children, ages 6 to 15, home 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%, nearly three times California’s legal limit. He also had marijuana in his system, but the agency said the alcohol was enough to seriously impair his driving. According to the report, the SUV was traveling between 88 and 98 miles per hour.

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 were killed 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 family has to live with,” he said. “It won’t go away tomorrow.”

Pulido’s lawyer, Paul Kiesel, said driver monitoring systems could also prevent crashes caused by medical problems or drowsiness, saving billions of dollars in pain and hospital costs.

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