US agency takes 1st step in requiring anti-drunk driving tech in cars

Federal car safety regulators shared their research and status on how they will require drunk driving technology in future new vehicles.
A driver takes a breathalyzer test.
Posted at 7:53 PM, Dec 12, 2023

U.S. transportation safety regulators say they have made their first move toward requiring new vehicles to contain drunk driving detection technology.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shared Tuesday its advanced notice of the proposed rule that would make impaired driving prevention technology the standard in new passenger vehicles. 

This notice will help the agency gather information about the state of this technology and how federal regulators would safely and effectively deploy the detection devices once they're more mature, the NHTSA said in a statement.

Devices that can detect and prevent drunk driving were a required point of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which Congress passed in 2021. It tasked the NHTSA with issuing a final rule on prescribing the technology in new vehicles within three years, making November 2024 the due date, but if they have to extend beyond the time frame, it must send an annual report to Congress. 

It's unlikely the deadline will be met, as researchers and companies developing the technology have to work through challenges — namely in how the technology will be able to passively detect whether a driver is fit to be behind the wheel. This means vehicles wouldn't have breathalyzers but would likely have sensors, and those would have to have a 100% accuracy rate.

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"NHTSA's information gathering and research efforts have found that several

technologies show promise for detecting various states of impairment, which for the purposes of this notice are alcohol, drowsiness, and distraction," the agency wrote in its notice. "However, technological challenges, such as distinguishing between different impairment states, avoiding false positives, and determining appropriate prevention countermeasures, remain."

The latest data involving alcohol impairment comes out of 2021. That year, nearly 13,400 people were killed in drunk driving crashes, with the NHTSA estimating these cost society $280 billion in lost wages, lost quality of life, medical costs and more.

December of 2021 also saw a 15-year high in alcohol-impaired fatalities, with more than 1,000 people killed in drunk driving crashes during the holiday season.

"Impaired driving crashes are 100% preventable — there's simply no excuse or reason to drive impaired by alcohol or drugs," said Ann Carlson, NHTSA acting administrator. "We urge everyone to be responsible this holiday season. If you've had anything to drink, use public transportation, arrange for a sober driver, or call a taxi or ride-hailing service and get home safely."