The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that all new cars in the United States have a blood alcohol monitoring system to deter intoxicated driving.
The recommendation, if enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, one of the largest causes of death on U.S. highways
New efforts to make roads safer are included in a report released Tuesday that said a horrific crash last year in which a drunk driver collided head-on with another vehicle near Fresno killed an adult The driver and seven children died.
The NHTSA said this week that the U.S. road death toll is crisis levelNearly 43,000 people lost their lives last year, the largest number in 16 years, as Americans returned to the road following pandemic stay-at-home orders.
Preliminary estimates show the death toll rose again in the first half of the year, but fell from April to June in what authorities hope is a trend.
The NTSB, which has no regulator and can only ask other agencies to take action, said the recommendation was designed to put pressure on NHTSA to do so. It could take effect in three years.
“We need NHTSA to act. We’re seeing the numbers,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said. “We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to save lives.”
The NTSB has been pushing NHTSA to explore alcohol monitoring technology since 2012, she said. “The faster the technology is implemented, the more lives are saved,” she said.
The recommendation also requires the system to monitor driver behavior to ensure they remain alert. Many cars now have cameras pointed at the driver, which has the potential to limit impaired driving, she said.
But Homendy said she also understands that perfecting alcohol tests will take time. “We also know that NHTSA will need time to evaluate what technologies are available and how to develop standards.”
A message was left Tuesday seeking comment from NHTSA.
The agency and a group of 16 automakers have been jointly funding alcohol monitoring research since 2008, forming a group called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety.
Jack McCook, a spokesman for the group, said the group had hired a Swedish company to work on a technology that could automatically test the alcohol level in a driver’s breath and stop the vehicle from moving if the driver was impaired. . The driver doesn’t have to blow air into the tube, McCook said, and the sensor checks the driver’s breath.
Another company is working on light technology that can detect blood alcohol levels in people’s fingers, he said. Breathing technology may be ready by the end of 2024, while touch technology will appear in about a year.
It could be another year or two after automakers get the technology to apply it to new vehicles, McCook said.
Once the technology is ready, it will take years to be used in most of the roughly 280 million cars on U.S. roads.
Under last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, Congress asked NHTSA to give automakers three years to install alcohol monitoring systems. The agency can seek an extension. In the past, such requirements have been slow to develop.
The legislation doesn’t specify the technology, except that it must “passively monitor” drivers to determine if they are impaired.
The latest figures for 2020 show 11,654 people have died in alcohol-related crashes, according to NHTSA. That accounts for about 30 percent of all U.S. traffic fatalities, the NTSB said, a 14 percent increase from the 2019 figure, the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the fatal crash included in the report, a 28-year-old SUV driver went home after drinking at a party on New Year’s Day 2021. The SUV pulled off the right side of Interstate 33, crossed the centerline, and collided head-on with a Ford F-150 pickup near Avenal, California.
The pickup was carrying Gabriela Pulido, 34, and seven children, ages 6 to 15, home after a trip to Pismo Beach. The truck quickly caught fire and bystanders were unable to rescue passengers, the NTSB said.
SUV drivers had a blood alcohol level of 0.21 percent, nearly three times the legal limit in California. He also had marijuana in his system, but the agency said there was enough alcohol to seriously affect his driving. The report said the SUV was going between 88 and 98 mph.
The NTSB said the accident occurred less than a second after the Dodge Journey re-entered the road, giving Pulido no time to avoid a collision.
Juan Pulido, 37, whose wife and four children were killed in the crash, said he was glad the NTSB was pushing for alcohol monitoring because it could prevent another person from losing a loved one. “It’s something their families have to endure,” he said. “Tomorrow will not disappear.”
Pulido’s attorney, Paul Kiesel, said the driver monitoring system could also prevent crashes caused by medical problems or drowsiness, saving pain and billions of dollars in hospital treatment.