Congress has created a new requirement for automakers: Find a high-tech way to keep drunk people from driving.
It’s one of the mandates alongside a burst of new spending aimed at improving auto safety in the $1-trillion infrastructure package that President Biden is expected to sign soon.
Under the legislation, monitoring systems to stop intoxicated drivers would roll out in all new vehicles as early as 2026, after the Transportation Department determines the best form of technology to install in millions of vehicles and automakers are given time to comply.
In all, about $17 billion is allotted for road safety programs, the biggest increase in such funding in decades, according to the Eno Center for Transportation. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday that that could mean more protected bike paths and greener spaces built into busy roadways.
“It’s monumental,” said Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Otte called the package the “single most important legislation” in the group’s history, a measure that marks “the beginning of the end of drunk driving.”
“It will virtually eliminate the No. 1 killer on America’s roads,” she said.
Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that an estimated 20,160 people died in traffic collisions in the first half of 2021, the highest first-half total since 2006. The agency has pointed to speeding, impaired driving and not wearing seatbelts during the COVID-19 pandemic as factors behind the spike.
Each year, about 10,000 people are killed in alcohol-related crashes in the U.S., making up nearly 30% of all traffic fatalities, according to the NHTSA.
Currently, some convicted drunk drivers must use breathalyzer devices attached to an ignition interlock, blowing into a tube and disabling the vehicle if their blood alcohol level is too high. The new legislation doesn’t specify any particular technology, saying only that it must “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.”
Sam Abuelsamid, principal mobility analyst for Guidehouse Insights, said the most likely system to prevent drunk driving would be infrared cameras that monitor driver behavior. That technology is already being installed by automakers such as General Motors, BMW and Nissan to track driver attentiveness while using partially automated driver-assist systems.
The cameras make sure a driver is watching the road, and they look for signs of drowsiness, loss of consciousness or impairment.
If signs are spotted, the cars will warn the driver, and …….