The NTSB wants all new vehicles to test drivers for alcohol use

DETROIT – The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending that all new vehicles in the United States must have a blood alcohol monitoring system that can stop people who are intoxicated from driving.

Those recommendations, if implemented by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, could reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes, one of the leading causes of highway deaths in the US.

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

NHTSA said this week that highway deaths in the US are at crisis levels. Nearly 43,000 people died last year, the highest number in 16 years, as Americans returned to the streets after stay-at-home orders.

Initial estimates showed fatalities rising again in the first half of this year, but they declined from April to 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 was designed to put pressure on NHTSA to move. It can be effective after three years from now.

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

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

The recommendation also calls for a system to monitor the behavior of drivers, ensuring they are alert. He said many cars now have cameras directed at the driver, which could potentially limit impaired driving.

But Homendy said he also understands that perfecting the alcohol test will take time. “We also know that it will take time for NHTSA to assess what technology is available and how to develop standards.”

A message was left Tuesday seeking comment from NHTSA.

The agency and a group of 16 automakers have 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 from moving if the driver is impaired, said Jake McCook, a spokesman for the group. The driver does not have to blow into the tube, and sensors will check the driver’s breath, McCook said.

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

It takes one or two more model years after automakers get the technology to be in new vehicles, McCook said.

Once the technology is ready, it will take years for most of the 280 million vehicles on US roads.

In last year’s bipartisan infrastructure legislation, Congress required NHTSA to make automakers install alcohol monitoring systems within three years. Agencies may seek extensions. In the past, it has been slow to enact such requirements.

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

In 2020, the latest figures available, 11,654 people died in alcohol-related crashes, according to NHTSA data. That’s about 30% of all US traffic deaths, and a 14% increase from the 2019 figure, the last full year before the coronavirus pandemic, the NTSB said.

In the fatal crash included in the report, the 28-year-old SUV driver was on his way home from a 2021 New Year’s party where he had been drinking. The SUV went off the right side of State Route 33, crossed the center line and hit a Ford F-150 pickup truck head-on near Avenal, California.

The pickup was bringing 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 people were unable to save the passengers, the NTSB said.

The SUV driver’s blood alcohol level was 0.21%, nearly three times California’s legal limit. He also had marijuana in his system, but the agency said the alcohol was more than enough to seriously impair his driving. The SUV was traveling 88-98 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 were killed in the crash, said he’s glad the NTSB is pushing for alcohol monitoring because it could prevent other people from losing loved ones. “It’s something his family has to live with,” he said. “It won’t go away tomorrow.”

Pulido’s attorney, Paul Kiesel, said driver monitoring systems could also stop accidents caused by medical problems or drowsiness, saving hardship and billions in hospital care costs.

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