NTSB wants all new vehicles to check drivers for alcohol consumption

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

The recommendation, if passed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could reduce the number of alcohol-related accidents, one of the leading causes of road deaths in the US.

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

NHTSA said this week that the number of road deaths in the US is at crisis level. Last year, nearly 43,000 people died, the largest number in 16 years, as Americans returned to the roads after pandemic stay-at-home orders.

According to early estimates, the number of fatalities rose again in the first half of this year, but fell from April to June, which is a trend, authorities say.

The NTSB, which has no regulatory authority and can only ask other agencies to act, said the recommendation is intended to pressure the NHTSA to relocate. It could be effective in as little as three years.

The change could reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, one of the leading causes of road deaths in the US
TAUT/Eric Paul Zamora

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

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

The recommendation also calls for systems to monitor a driver’s behavior and ensure they are alert. She said many cars now have cameras pointed at the driver, which can limit drunk driving.

But Homendy also says he understands that perfecting the alcohol tests takes time. “We also know it will take time for the NHTSA to evaluate what technologies are available and how to develop a standard.”

A message was left on Tuesday requesting comment from the NHTSA.

The agency and a group of 16 automakers have been jointly funding alcohol monitoring research since 2008 and forming a group called Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety.

The group has hired a Swedish company to research technology that would automatically test a driver’s breath for alcohol and stop a vehicle from driving if the driver is disabled, said Jake McCook, a spokesperson for the group. The driver wouldn’t have to blow into a tube, and a sensor would monitor the driver’s breath, McCook said.

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

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

Once the technology is ready, it will take years to make it into most of the roughly 280 million vehicles on U.S. roads.

Under last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, Congress required the NHTSA to have automakers install alcohol control systems within three years. The office can request an extension. In the past, it has been slow to establish such requirements.

The legislation doesn’t specify the technology, just that it must “passively monitor” a driver to determine if they have a disability.

In 2020, 11,654 people died in alcohol-related accidents, according to the most recent figures, according to NHTSA data. That’s about 30% of all traffic fatalities in the US and a 14% increase from 2019 figures, 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 on his way home from a 2021 New Year’s Eve party where he had been drinking. The SUV struck off the right side of State Route 33, crossed the centerline and collided head-on with a Ford F-150 pickup truck near Avenal, California.

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 SUV driver’s blood alcohol level was 0.21%, nearly three times the legal limit in California. He also had marijuana in his system, but the agency said the alcohol was more than enough to seriously impair his ability to drive. The SUV was traveling 88 to 98 miles per hour (142 to 158 kilometers per hour), the report said.

The crash happened less than a second after Journey re-entered the road, leaving Pulido with no time to avoid the collision, the NTSB said.

Juan Pulido, 37, whose wife and four children were killed in the crash, said he is pleased the NTSB is 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. “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 anxiety and billions in hospital treatment costs.

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