Your car should be able to tell if you’re too drunk or impaired to drive, NTSB says

The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency responsible for investigating vehicle and aviation crashes, called on the government to require all new vehicles to include technology that would detect drunk or impaired driving.

The recommendation was made in light of a horrific crash that took place in Fresno County, California, on New Year’s Day 2021 that killed nine people, including seven children. The crash was caused by an impaired driver who was speeding.

​“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 US annually,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy in a statement. “We need to implement the technologies we have right here, right now to save lives.”​

“Technology could’ve prevented this heartbreaking crash”

NTSB is calling on federal regulators to require passive alcohol detection, advanced driver monitoring systems, or some combination of the two on all new vehicles. The board is also recommending incentivizing automakers to adopt intelligent speed adaption systems that would automatically limit the speed of a vehicle.

These systems engage in a range of activities, from issuing warnings when a driver is exceeding the speed limit to electronically limiting the speed of the vehicle. Slower vehicle speeds are proven to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities during crashes.

It isn’t the first time NTSB has recommended automatic speed limiters for cars, but it has yet to gain traction among automakers, many of whom market their vehicles’ 0-to-60 mph acceleration times as a selling point.

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“We have to remember that technology is only part of the solution. 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,” Homendy said.

The recommendations come amid an epidemic in traffic fatalities on US roads. According to preliminary estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 9,560 people died in vehicle crashes in the first quarter of 2022, an increase of about 7 percent as compared to the same quarter in 2021. That’s the highest number of first-quarter fatalities in two decades.

The idea of using technology to prevent drunk driving has been bouncing around the auto industry for years but without any real outcomes. Just today, Volvo announced its new electric model — the EX90 — would include a driver monitoring system that can read facial expressions and behavior to detect drunk or distracted driving. Many vehicles on the road today include driver monitoring systems that track a driver’s face or eye movements, but none rise to the level that could detect an impaired state or emotional distress.

Vehicle breathalyzers are likely not under consideration

Of course, anyone who has been convicted of drunk driving knows that a simpler technology already exists: a vehicle breathalyzer attached to the vehicle’s starter that requires the driver to submit breath samples in order to start your motor. NTSB is calling for a more passive system, though, so it seems unlikely that a more active breathalyzer system would be under consideration.

The US Department of Transportation is currently evaluating a number of new technologies related to preventing drunk or impaired driving. The recently passed infrastructure bill gave the department three years to craft a requirement that new vehicles feature “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology.”

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