Feds want technology to combat drunk driving in cars – here's what's standing in the way

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The in-car technology used by companies like Ford and GM to ensure drivers pay attention to the road has come a long way. However, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it is simply unable to prevent or mitigate the harm caused by drunk driving.

That assessment is part of a new 99-page “Preliminary Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” the agency issued Tuesday, a pit stop of sorts on the way to adopting rules that would require in-car technology that could detect when a driver is drinking drank.

NHTSA is now asking for help determining what technologies should be installed in cars to curb or prevent the problem – in part because the agency says there are no commercially available options. After the notice is published in the Federal Register, the public has 60 days to submit comments.

NHTSA said it evaluated 331 driver monitoring systems and found no commercially available system that can properly handle alcohol impairment detection. While it has been noted that there are three DMS systems that claim to detect alcohol-related impairments, these are still in the research and development phase. (These systems were not named.)

However, driver monitoring is not the only option available to NHTSA. NHTSA began this mission after President Biden tasked the agency in 2021 with finding a solution in his bipartisan infrastructure bill. This law tasked NHTSA with developing a federal motor vehicle safety standard that could determine whether a driver was impaired by either passively monitoring them or not. or by passively (and accurately) detecting whether their blood alcohol concentration is too high, or a combination of both.

Accuracy is key, and according to NHTSA’s findings, blood alcohol detection technology is a more viable answer in the short term. After all, dozens of states already require breathalyzer-based alcohol ignition interlocks for repeat offenders or high-alcohol offenders. However, this technology is considered “active,” meaning the driver must be proactive with the technology – which conflicts with the law’s passive requirement.

There may be another option.

Since 2008, NHTSA has worked with the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS) on a public-private partnership called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). As part of this program, DADSS has developed both breath- and touch-based methods for detecting driver impairment. The breath-based method would also be considered active and therefore a non-starter, however, since the touch sensor is designed to be embedded in something the driver must touch to operate the vehicle (like the push-to-start button ). According to NHTSA, it is “preliminarily determined that such a touch sensor could be considered passive.”

Robert Strassburger, CEO of ACTS, believes that the touch sensor may be the best way forward in the short term given the limitation that the technology must be passive; He’s curious to see what the public thinks.

“That will be an area of ​​interest to me as I read the comments that are ultimately submitted. How do people feel about this? Because it depends on consumer acceptance,” he says. “I think we want to make sure we’re not asking drivers to learn a new way to interact with their car.”

Timing is important. Not only does drunk driving kill thousands every year and cost the country billions, but the final rule must be standardized by November 2024.

This goal may be difficult to achieve given how many questions NHTSA asks in its notice. The agency raises all sorts of tough questions that go beyond asking for more input on driver monitoring or the definition of “passive.” For example, if there is a touch sensor built into the start-stop button, how do you ensure that the driver is the one pressing it? If the system detects that a driver is too drunk to start the car, should it prevent the car from starting? What happens if the driver tries to escape a forest fire?

“This is a very, very complicated set of rules,” says Strassburger. “There are a lot of details and the agency has to get it right.”