Congress is mandating automakers to use technology to find a way to prevent DUI deaths.
Around 10,000 people are killed yearly due to alcohol-related traffic incidents, which account for roughly one-third of traffic crash fatalities.
The mandate is one of many in the $1 trillion infrastructure package aimed at improving auto safety amid growing road fatalities. The package was approved Friday and is expected to be signed by President Joe Biden soon.
The legislation calls for monitoring systems to stop intoxicated drivers as early as 2026. The Transportation Department will assess which form of technology works best to install in millions of vehicles and automakers would be given time to abide by the new standards.
"It will virtually eliminate the No. 1 killer on America's roads," said Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Otte also called the package "monumental," labeling it as the "single most important legislation" in the group's history. She said that it is "the beginning of the end of drunk driving."
In total, there is about $17 billion allotted to road safety programs. That is the biggest increase in funding for such programs in decades. The funding could allow for more protected bike paths and greener spaces in busy roadways, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said.
Infrared cameras that monitor drivers' behavior are said to be the most likely system to prevent drunken driving, Sam Abuelsamid, principal mobility analyst for Guidehouse Insights, told The Associated Press. The cameras would watch drivers for signs of fatigue, loss of impairment, or consciousness. If spotted, the car would warn the driver, then turn on the hazard lights, slow down the vehicle and pull it to the side of the road if the driver failed to comply.
For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.
Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 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 seat belts during the coronavirus pandemic as factors behind the spike.
Currently, some convicted drunken 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 legislation doesn't specify the technology, only that it must "passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired."
Abuelsamid said breathalyzers aren't a practical solution because many people would object to being forced to blow into a tube every time they get into the car. "I don't think it's going to go over very well with a lot of people," he said.
The voluminous bill also requires automakers to install rear-seat reminders to alert parents if a child is left inadvertently in the back seat, a mandate that could begin by 2025 after NHTSA completes its rulemaking on the issue. Since 1990, about 1,000 children have died from vehicular heatstroke after the highest total in a single year was 54 in 2018, according to Kidsandcars.org.
Congress, meanwhile, directed the agency to update decades-old safety standards to avert deaths from collapsing front seatbacks and issue a rule requiring automatic emergency braking and lane departure warnings in all passenger vehicles, though no date was set for compliance.
Most automakers had already agreed to make automatic emergency braking standard equipment in most of their models by September of next year, as part of a voluntary plan announced in the final weeks of the Obama administration.
Buttigieg, promoting the legislation's benefits at a White House briefing, said he had traveled the country in recent months and seen too many roadside memorials for people who had died in preventable traffic deaths.
He pointed to a new $5 billion "Safe Streets & Roads for All" program under his department that will in part promote healthier streets for cyclists and pedestrians. The federal program, which he acknowledged may take several months to set up, would support cities' campaigns to end traffic fatalities with a "Vision Zero" effort that could build traffic roundabouts to slow cars, carve out new bike paths and widen sidewalks and even reduce some roads to shift commuters toward public transit or other modes of transportation.
The legislation requires at least 15 percent of a state's highway safety improvement program funds to address pedestrians, bicyclists and other non-motorized road users if those groups make up 15 percent or more of the state's crash fatalities.
"The best way to allow people to move in ways that are better for congestion and better for climate is to give them alternatives," Buttigieg said. Describing much of it as a longer-term effort, he said, "this is how we do right by the next generation."
Still, safety advocates worry that the bipartisan bill missed opportunities to address more forcefully an emerging U.S. crisis of road fatalities and urged the Transportation Department to deliver on immediate solutions.
They have called on a sometimes slow-moving NHTSA to address a backlog of traffic safety regulations ordered by Congress nearly a decade ago, such as mandatory rear seat belt reminders. The department recently said it will release a "safe system approach" to road safety in January that identifies safety action for drivers, roads, vehicles, speeds and post-crash medical care.
"Prompt action must be taken on comprehensive, commonsense and confirmed solutions to steer our nation toward zero crash fatalities," said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "Proven solutions are at hand; it's time to take action."