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Government Inches Closer to Mandatory Breathalyzers, Driver Monitoring


In the past, someone who had an ignition interlock device equipped to their vehicle typically needed to be found guilty of some criminal offense. But they may become commonplace if the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) gets its wish to have breathalyzers installed into all new vehicles. 

With crash rates spiking dramatically and substance abuse on the rise, there’s good reason to fret over impaired drivers. Last week, the NTSB cited a fatal incident where alcohol led to the death of nine people on the road – the majority of which were children – as the main reason for it to call for alcohol impairment detection systems to be included in all new vehicles. Though it’s hardly the only one, as the concept of mandatory breathalyzers has been around for decades. 

We covered the topic back in 2008 and yours truly brought it up as recently as 2021, following some changes to an earlier draft of the infrastructure bill that sought to include new vehicle regulations that would have required an interlock device designed to prohibit impaired driving. Congress has actually been urging the NTSB to take action for a few years and now has some active legislation that may actually force the issue. 

Section 24220 of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (which President Biden signed into law late in 2021) requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue a rule “that requires passenger motor vehicles manufactured after the effective date of that standard to be equipped with advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology.”

Since the NTSB is an independent U.S. government investigative agency, it’s highly influential but can’t make any formal rules. So it’s urging the NHTSA to establish new vehicle guidelines that would uphold provisions outlined in the legislation. However, safety regulators could decide that installing an interlock device would be at odds with current federal vehicle safety standards.

“We need NHTSA to act. We see the numbers,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said, according to the Associated Press. “We need to make sure that we’re doing all we can to save lives.”

The NTSB has also been working with the Alliance for Automotive Innovation (the largest automotive lobbying group in history) to encourage manufacturers to develop advanced impaired driving prevention technologies or leverage older tech in a manner that could be universally installed into new vehicles. This opens the door to more than just breathalyzers and there have been discussions about leveraging driver-monitoring cameras that we’ve already seen installed into some vehicles. Systems designed to monitor a driver’s attentiveness while using hands-free systems (e.g. Tesla Autopilot or General Motors’ SuperCruise) could be adapted to leverage algorithms designed to detect whether or not a motorist is impaired. So, instead of blowing into a little tube, motorists may instead find themselves perpetually monitored for the duration of their journey. 

“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,” stated Homendy. “We need to implement the technologies we have right here, right now to save lives.”​

Not all of those technologies are camera- or tube-based. Research is presently underway to design cabin-mounted sensors that take readings of the air around the driver to determine whether or not their blood-alcohol level has exceeded the legal limits. The same is true for a touch-based system that could theoretically be installed into the starter button. This unit would shine an infrared light through the fingertip of the driver, taking biometric data as it also determines their blood-alcohol content. 

Alternatives to simply analyzing the air that’s coming out of the driver’s mouth may also have the ability to check for generalized impairment. Not all impaired wrecks involve alcohol. But there’s less comprehensive data collection on things like prescription drug abuse or hardcore mind-altering substances. Marijuana also poses a problem. States have varying laws on the legality of cannabis, including how to handle stoned drivers. Research has likewise been fairly non-conclusive in terms of establishing whether or not baked motorists even pose any serious risk. Previous studies have shown that subjects exposed to marijuana are more likely to be cautious, often electing not to drive if they feel impaired whereas subjects given alcohol often tend to overestimate their abilities. 

Frankly, it seems like a lot for any automated system to contend with – especially since we’ve seen how lousy some advanced driving aids can be. Do we really want to sacrifice yet another layer of privacy for the assumption that these interlocking devices function as advertised? 

It seems like a big ask and it all hinges on the NHTSA, which has three years to figure out how to implement this. The law formally requires “passive vehicle-integrated alcohol impairment detection systems, advanced driver monitoring systems or a combination of the two that would be capable of preventing or limiting vehicle operation if it detects driver impairment by alcohol,” so that offers quite a bit of wiggle room. But it also sounds a lot like something you force upon a person who has repeatedly endangered the public, not every single motorist under the sun.

[Image: zstock/Shutterstock]

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