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‘This is essentially eliminating drunk driving’: Impaired driving prevention measure passed in Infrastructure Bill

Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 12:32 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - After months of political gridlock, Monday President Biden signed into law the $1.2 Trillion Infrastructure Bill. The package pours billions into roads, bridges, public transit, the power grid, clean water, and broadband internet earning the support of lawmakers, governors, and mayors in both parties.

Also included in that bill is a section for “Advanced Impaired Driving Technology” which initiates a rulemaking by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to set the new safety standard. When fully implemented on all new cars, more than 9,400 lives could be saved annually, according to a 2020 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The provision is one the organization Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) believes is the most significant lifesaving measure in its 41-year history.

“We’ve changed the way that cars are made how many people get to say that,” said MADD national president Alex Otte.

At just 25 years old, Otte is the youngest national president in the organization’s history, the first to not be a parent, and the first president to be injured in a drunk driving accident rather than lose someone.

After her near-death accident involving a drunk driver back in 2010, Otte vowed to do everything in her power to make sure more lives could be saved and accidents prevented.

“I was run over 11 years ago and I knew then that I wanted to be the last little girl it would ever happen to,” Otte said. “The man who ran me over was three times the legal limit two and a half hours later. This would be his fourth DUI.”

The legislation gives the NHTSA three years to evaluate technologies and set the standard for impaired driving prevention technology on all new vehicles. From there, automakers are given two to three years to implement the safety standard.

Otte says MADD documented a Request for Information (RFI) response in May 2021 from the NHTSA that 241 advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technologies existed. MADD says many of these technologies that could be deployed now fall into one of three categories:

  1. Driving performance monitoring systems that monitor the vehicle movement using cameras and sensors that are outside the vehicle, such as lane departure warning and attention assist;
  2. Systems that monitor the driver’s head and eyes, typically using a camera or other sensors that are inside the vehicle;
  3. Passive alcohol detection systems that use sensors to determine whether a driver is drunk and then prevent the vehicle from moving.

Otte says a specific technology has not yet been chosen yet. Otte says the aim for NHTSA is to choose one technology or a combination of the three to mandate in all new cars.

According to MADD, advanced alcohol detection systems use sensors integrated into a car that passively determines if the person behind the wheel is drunk. The smart technology also has no relation to police breathalyzers or to ignition interlock devices that require a motorist to actively blow into a device.

“The drunk or otherwise impaired driver will get in their car and it either won’t start, won’t move, or will pull itself over once it detects impairment,” Otte said. “The insurance institute for highway safety estimates that once this technology is in all new cars it will save more than 9,400 lives every year. essentially eliminating drunk driving.”

The safety provision could go beyond preventing incidents of drunk driving. According to MADD these systems could also detect other dangerous behaviors that lead to crashes such as drowsy driving, distracted driving, and even medical emergencies.

Otte believes the end of drunk driving could be within her lifetime. News of the Infrastructure Bill being signed into law was enough to bring Vanessa Haislip to tears.

“It’s joyful tears. I look at the families who will not have to go through what we’ve gone through.” Haislip “There are not enough words to say thank you for what they have done by passing this law.”

Haislip’s life would change forever when she lost her daughter Melissa to a drunk driving crash in 2014.

“She was a nurse at sain Mary’s hospital She was on her way home from work, she was killed by a crash,” Haislip said. “The guy was going between 80 and 85 miles an hour in a 35 mile per hour zone. His blood-alcohol level was double.”

Ever since Haislip has been working with MADD to help educate young people about the dangers of driving while impaired.

“When someone is killed in a crash like this, it’s not just one family that’s affected it’s a whole community,” Haislip said. “You can’t put a price on life.”

Though the measure is a major step in the fight to curb incidents of drunk driving, Haislip believes it will still take time for the safety technologies to have the desired impact because there will still be millions of cars on the road that won’t have the safety measures even if newer vehicles have them.

“People still need to be aware of the consequences of making bad choices with drinking and driving,” Haislip said. “People are still going to have older vehicles so not every vehicle is going to have this new technology.”

“It’s going to take years and years before that technology is on every vehicle for everybody that’s driving,” Haislip said.

New cars equipped with the -directed technology could start rolling off the assembly line in 2026-2027.

Otte says the goal of this provision is to make safety a standard across the board. Otte says much of the technology being looked at is already in cars on the market today but can be inaccessible to some consumers due to costs.

“Car companies at this time are putting the technology in there, but then they are charging the purchaser of the car thousands of dollars to switch this technology on,” Otte said. “To me, that means two things; it makes safety a luxury of the rich for people who can pay thousands more extra for their car, but more so than that the people who genuinely need the technology in their vehicle because they’re going to make the choice to drink and drive will never pay for it.”

The organization believes that a timeline can be met with existing technologies and those currently being developed. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), states that their current timeline for use in consumer vehicles is by 2024 for the breath system and 2025 for the touch system.

According to Otte the push for a drunk driving prevention technology standard for all new vehicles was led in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI), who introduced the HALT (Honoring the Abbas Family Legacy to Terminate Drunk Driving) Act in memory of Issam and Rima Abbas and their three children who were killed by a drunk driver while driving home from vacation in January 2019.

The Senate version of the bill, the RIDE (Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone) Act, was led by Senators Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Rick Scott (R-FL) with co-sponsorship from Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).

In 2019, more than 10,000 people were killed and 300,000 others injured in drunk driving crashes. Preliminary estimates for 2020 show alcohol-related deaths spiked by 9% compared to 2019, even as vehicle miles traveled diminished significantly during the pandemic.

“We are so thankful for all of our support in Congress and for all of our support of victims, survivors, and family who were so willing to share their stories,” Otte said. We are so thankful to be in this place today.

Last month, the NHTSA reported an estimated 20,160 people died on America’s roads in the first half of 2021, an 18.4% increase over the first half of 2019. The rise in traffic deaths is due to speeding, not wearing seatbelts and impaired driving which is the leading cause of traffic deaths and injuries. According to NHTSA.

“The sooner this gets done the more lives are saved and injuries prevented,” Otte said. “I truly believe that we will all live to see a day when there is the last victim of drunk driving,” Otte said.

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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