As part of the recommendation, the group highlighted a crash that occurred on New Year’s Day 2021 in Avenal, CA, that killed nine people, including seven children.
An impaired 28-year-old driver left a party where had had been drinking to go home. He quickly sped up to 88 to 98 mph, ran off the right side of the road, overcorrected into the left lane, and collided head-on with another car, which caught fire right away. Everyone in both vehicles died. The driver’s blood alcohol level was .21%, nearly three times California’s legal limit.
“Technology could’ve prevented this heartbreaking crash – just as it can prevent the tens of thousands of fatalities from impaired-driving and speeding-related crashes we see in the U.S. annually,” Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in the statement.
“We need to implement the technologies we have right here, right now to save lives,” she said.
If enacted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the recommendation could reduce alcohol-related crashes, which are one of the biggest causes of highway deaths in the U.S., according to The Associated Press. In 2020, more than 11,600 people died in alcohol-related crashes, accounting for 30% of U.S. traffic deaths and a 14% increase over 2019 numbers.
Earlier this week, the Traffic Safety Administration said U.S. roadway deaths are at crisis levels. Nearly 43,000 people were killed on roads last year, which is the highest number in 16 years. During the first half of 2022, about 20,175 people died, marking a .5% increase over the same period in 2021.
Road fatalities began rising in summer 2020 when most streets were still empty due to pandemic-related stay-at-home orders and work-from-home conditions. There was less traffic on the roads, and reports of speeding, reckless driving, and impaired driving soared, leading to a record spike in deaths, the AP reported. Many people weren’t wearing seat belts.
“We have to remember that technology is only part of the solution,” Homendy said. “To save lives on our roads, we need to look more broadly at the entire transportation system, which includes everything that can prevent a crash.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, which doesn’t have regulatory authority, can only ask other agencies to act, the AP reported. The group’s recommendation for an alcohol detection system is intended to put pressure on the Traffic Safety Administration to make changes. If approved, the new rule could be effective as soon as 3 years from now.
The recommendations also call for speed adaptation systems to prevent speed-related crashes, as well as advanced systems to limit operation if the technology finds the driver is impaired, making sure the driver is alert and able to drive safely. The monitoring systems could also stop crashes caused by medical problems or drowsiness, the AP reported.
“We need [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] to act. We see the numbers,” Homendy told the outlet. “We need to make sure that we’re doing all we can to save lives.”
The National Transportation Safety Board and 16 automakers have jointly funded research on alcohol monitoring since 2008. The group, called Driver Alcohol Detection Systems for Safety, has hired a Swedish company to research technology that could automatically test a driver’s breath for alcohol through a sensor in the car. Another company is working on light technology that could test for blood alcohol in a person’s finger.
The breath technology could be ready by the end of 2024, the AP reported, and the touch technology could be ready about a year later. Then it would likely take 1 or 2 more years after automakers receive the technology for it to appear regularly in new vehicles.