NTSB says all vehicles need alcohol detectors and the law will soon require them

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is officially recommending that all new cars and trucks be equipped with alcohol detection devices.

The decision comes following an investigation into a head-on collision that took place on New Year's Day 2021 in Avenel, California, between a speeding SUV being driven by an impaired driver and a pickup truck that left nine dead.

​"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," NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in a report.

"We need to implement the technologies we have right here, right now to save lives."​

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The in car alcohol interlock device which stops drink drivers from starting their engine if they are over the legal drink drive limit, at Durham Police headquarters. (Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The NTSB, which has no regulatory authority itself, has told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that it should implement a requirement for the systems along with a program that would incentivize automakers and consumers "to adopt intelligent speed adaptation systems that would prevent speed-related crashes" even when alcohol is not involved.

According to the NTSB, there were 11,654 fatalities occurred in alcohol-impaired crashes in 2020, which represented approximately 30% of all accident-related deaths.

NHTSA is already working on the topic as the infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden in 2021 included a requirement for all vehicles to be equipped with passive alcohol interlocks, which would make them inoperable if a high blood alcohol level is detected. The law dictates that regulations be developed within three years and gives automakers two years to comply, but allows the Department of Transportation to extend the periods, if technically necessary.

The DADSS breath-based system would use passive technology to determine if the driver is impaired, even if other people who have consumed alcohol are in the vehicle. (DADSS)

Unlike the systems currently mandated by states for drivers convicted of DUI offenses, which require them to breathe into a tube before starting their vehicles. NHTSA and 17 automakers have been developing and testing a passive breath test and a touch system that uses infrared light to measure the blood alcohol level through the skin as part of the DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety) program.

Details on how the final version of the technology will operate are still being worked out, but the current aftermarket interlock systems typically cost around $60 to $150 to install and $60 to $80 per month to calibrate and monitor remotely, according to manufacturer LifeSaver.

A touch-based system would use infrared light to determine a driver’s blood alcohol level through their skin. (DADSS)

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Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU, said the organization applauds efforts to save lives, but that this technology raises concerns about the mishandling of personal information.

"There are a lot of ways that safety can be improved that don't involved invading people's privacy. Keeping the data in the vehicle would help address that," Stanley said.

"I hope the regulators recognize the seriousness of this issue and don't mess around with how the information collected is managed by the automakers."

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NHTSA says on its website that "in order to be considered for widespread deployment, the DADSS technology must be seamless, accurate, and precise, and unobtrusive to the sober driver. It must also be proven reliable to be installed in the vehicle fleet and publically favorable."

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