NTSB: Breathalyzers in All Cars?

A recent release from the National Transportation Safety Board is suggesting that the federal government is considering developing new requirements to install some sort of alcohol detection system in all new cars. It’s a bold step for an agency that has, at least in the past decade, generally kowtowed to the automotive industry– or at least failed to meaningfully regulate it. The automotive industry beat CAFE standards, for example, by selling more trucks. This has resulted in drastic increases in the fatality rates from collisions. Barring the possibility of cracking down on that, which would basically wreck the automotive industry, are breathalyzers– or something similar- a possibility?

We’ve seen a lot of high-profile crashes lately that have raised questions amid a nationally skyrocketing rate of automotive fatalities, even as total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) decreased in 2020 and 2021. Jackie Walorski, the Republican Congresswoman from Indiana, died in a high-speed wreck, with a staffer driving way over the speed limit. A travel nurse in Los Angeles crashed into a gas station after traveling as fast as 130mph, killing five. And, prompting the NTSB release, a crash in California killed nine including seven children. Can’t we fix this? Obviously, I’m a fan of safer street design and less car reliance. But can tech help? 

Safety in Different Formats

This is brand spanking new, so we haven’t seen any response quite yet from the automakers. The Big Two and a Half, for their part, have responded to previous complaints about the threats to pedestrian safety from larger vehicles by suggesting that maybe we could come up with some kind of new-fangled technology to fix the issue. In other words, it’s not the fault of the cars being too big. It’s the lack of, uh, new technology! Like pedestrian airbags! While this might sound ridiculous, it’s easy to imagine how shorter-range vehicles might well be built out of softer materials. Or drive at lower speeds. The gap between the usage of a 5.7L hemi truck whose heaviest average load is a sack of groceries and an ultralight autonomous delivery drone– let’s call this the “utility gap”- suggests that the former is perhaps a bit of overkill. No pun intended.

We can’t fix all of our problems with technology. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to fix some of them.

New Technologies That Might Work?

The release doesn’t specifically say “breathalyzers.” There are, in fact, a number of new technologies that could address this without a breath-based alcohol detection system. Technology developed in tandem with yet-elusive self-driving tech has brought a number of safety improvements. Things like lane-keeping assist (LKAS), front collision detection (which brakes automatically), and adaptive cruise control (ACC) are all part of this package. So, too, are systems that detect how many corrections the driver makes to the wheel in a given time span. This ostensibly measures driver attention levels and will tell you when you need to stop for coffee or what have you. (Distracted driving is dangerous, certainly, but I’ve always maintained that tired driving is every bit as dangerous as drunk driving). In my research for my thesis, I actually encountered a number of folks working on related technologies. Seizure detection built into the car, for example, or similar safeguards. Behavioral responses from technology, and technology designed to incentivize certain behavior, are becoming increasingly common.

Without necessarily gamifying the process of driving (in pickup trucks in red states, they might well be equipped with a thing that plays a pleasant ‘ding’ every time you run over a cyclist in your F150 Super Duty), it’s possible to imagine how this could actually help street safety.

So, will we see mandatory breathalyzers in cars any time soon? Probably not. Any changes to federal rules necessarily require a lengthy period of comment and review, and would probably be subjected to long and messy litigation. The argument from drivers (Cagers’ Rights Advocates?) has typically been that restrictions on how one can operate a vehicle infringes upon their civil liberties. Or something. It’s hardly a Fourth Amendment issue. With great power should come great responsibility. If you can’t obey the law– something like a speed limit, for example- perhaps you shouldn’t be driving. Anyway, I am not holding my breath, but it is a fascinating development from an agency independent of a USDOT that has actually developed some progressive policy moves.

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A wreck from a front-end collision is towed on an American freeway at sunset. File photo by Ivan Kokoulin, undated.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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