Infrastructure Bill Mandates Drunk Driving Prevention Tech in New Cars
President Biden recently signed into law a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill. The package pours billions into roads, bridges, public transit, the power grid, clean water, and broadband internet, but it also includes a bill that mandates lifesaving drunk driving prevention technology as standard equipment in all new cars. The mandate falls under the bill section that provides $17 billion to road safety programs. According to a 2020 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drunk driving prevention technology could save more than 9,400 lives annually when fully implemented on all new cars.
The “Advanced Impaired Driving Technology” section of the infrastructure bill directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to initiate a rulemaking process and set the new safety standard. NHTSA will evaluate technologies that may include:
- Passive alcohol detection systems use sensors to determine whether a driver is drunk and then prevent the vehicle from moving.
- Driving performance monitoring systems that monitor vehicle movement with lane departure warning and attention assist systems.
- Passive driver monitoring systems monitor the driver’s head and eyes, typically using a camera or other sensors.
Additionally, the infrastructure bill requires that all car manufacturers install rear-seat reminders, a safety feature that alerts parents if a child (or object that weighs as much as a child) is in the back seat. Other vehicle safety requirements include lane departure warning and automatic emergency braking as standard equipment, which most automakers already make standard.
The bill gives the NHTSA three years to evaluate technologies and set the standard for impaired driving prevention technology on all new vehicles. Automakers are given two to three years to implement the new safety standard.
How Does the Technology Work?
It’s not clear exactly what the anti-drunk driving system would look like. Courts have ordered some drunk drivers to use breathalyzers attached to ignition interlocks to start their vehicles for years, but the technology noted in this bill would take that concept much further. It would have to be a system that can either passively monitor a driver’s performance to detect if they are impaired or passively and accurately detect whether the driver’s blood-alcohol level is above the legal limit. If impairment or an illegal blood alcohol limit is detected, the system is required to prevent or limit motor vehicle operation.
Because the bill specifies that the anti-drunk driving system needs to be passive, it rules out breathalyzer tubes. Congress wants a system that will work automatically without drivers having to do anything. Most automotive manufacturers have already started installing infrared cameras that monitor driver behavior.
These cameras use semi-automated driver-assist systems and track driver attentiveness to ensure drivers keep their eyes on the road and look for indications of drowsiness, impairment, or loss of consciousness. If the system detects any of these behaviors, a warning alerts the driver and only escalates if said behaviors continue. Hazard lights come on, speed decreases, and the vehicle either comes to a halt or pulls over to the side of the road.
A public-private partnership called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) project is also researching a passive alcohol sensor that detects the driver’s blood-alcohol content (BAC) by measuring the ambient air in the vehicle. The group is also studying a touch-based system that would measure blood alcohol levels under the skin’s surface by shining an infrared light through the driver’s fingertip. However, neither technology has been deployed by commercial automakers.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), drunk driving threatens everyone, and since state-of-the-art alcohol detection technology already exists, the organization is confident that the auto industry has the resources and expertise to make these critical safety advancements well within the timeline specified in this legislation.
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