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Congress inches toward mandating car technology that blocks drunk driving

It’s not a law yet, but car manufacturers may soon have to include technology in all new vehicles that will test whether drivers are sober enough to operate a vehicle.

The House passed a $1.5 trillion transportation and infrastructure measure last week that includes an array of new car safety requirements. Among them is a provision requiring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five years to develop a rule requiring advanced drunk driving prevention technology in all new cars.

The federal government and automakers have already been jointly researching a Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, which passively tests driver intoxication through breath or touch and does not require the driver to blow into a breathalyzer or take any other action.

The system is meant to detect blood alcohol levels above the legal limit, which is .08 in 49 states. If a driver exceeds the limit, the system will prevent the car from moving.

The technology is still in the testing phase and may not be ready for widespread use for several years, although Volvo announced it would roll out new vehicles this year with its own in-car camera technology aimed at detecting drunk driving.

The federal government has been pumping tens of millions of dollars into research and development of the DADSS system, and bipartisan support has emerged for requiring car manufacturers to include it in new vehicles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 10,000 traffic deaths occur due to drunk driving every year.

“The DADSS technology has the potential to save lives,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat and lead sponsor of the House provision.

The House bill, which won three Republican votes, would call on the NHTSA to work with automakers and other stakeholders to require installing the technology in new cars. The eventual requirement could involve other systems, such as those that operate with in-car cameras that monitor driving behavior.

Senate Republicans aren’t likely to take up the House transportation and infrastructure bill, but at least one Senate GOP lawmaker supports the provision mandating drunk driving technology in new cars.

Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, has sponsored bipartisan legislation in the Senate that mirrors the House bill requirement for new cars to eventually include the alcohol detection system.

Scott introduced the bill with a story about his good friend, who was recently killed by a drunk driver while riding in a cab.

“Drunk driving is the No. 1 cause of death on American roadways,” Scott said. “Deaths that are 100% preventable.”

The American Beverage Institute, which represents over 8,000 restaurants, opposes the DADSS program. Officials at the ABI warn the technology can’t accurately measure a driver’s blood alcohol content as it metabolizes, so the DADSS system is likely to be set as low as .03 or .04.

About 70% of drunk driving fatalities are caused by drivers with alcohol levels of .15 or higher, which is nearly twice the legal limit of .08, the ABI points out.

“The devices are also unlikely to work perfectly,” an ABI official said. “Even if manufactured to work 99.9997% of the time (the highest standard), they will still malfunction over 3,000 times per day. That’s sober individuals stranded and drunk drivers allowed to operate their cars.”

Other related trade association groups are treading more cautiously on the idea of mandating alcohol detection in cars.

“The Beer Institute shares the vision adopted by DADSS to picture a world without drunk driving,” a spokesman for the institute, which represents companies that produce and import beer, told the Washington Examiner in a statement. “DADSS is a developing technology project that is still being researched. We look forward to the project report and are encouraged to see the work done thus far. There are a myriad of factors to consider from introduction to implementation for personal or potential court-use. The Beer Institute will remain engaged and aims to support positive steps to prevent drunk driving.”

The DADSS program began testing the technology in June 2019 in Massachusetts in cars with drivers and drinking passengers, “to determine how the sensors respond to real-world driving conditions.”

A spokesperson for the system has not yet responded to a request for information on the status of the pilot program, which DADSS said, “will inform the development and calibration of the next generation of breath sensors, as well as future vehicle integration.”

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