Existing technology can eliminate drunk driving

When my 16-year-old daughter glided to the end of our driveway on her rollerblades, blew me a kiss, and promised to be right back from a quick skate along the designated bike path through our neighborhood, the future I saw for her was as bright as our Florida sun. Hours later, the sun in my life went dark when a police officer came to my door to deliver the news that a drunk and marijuana-impaired driver had hit and killed my Helen Marie.

When the 17-year-old girl who had been knocking back tequila shots and consuming marijuana got behind the wheel of her car that afternoon in 2000, no one — not the friends who joined her, nor even the car itself — stopped her from driving. No one made her slow down when she sped along at 60 mph in a 30 mph zone. No one took the wheel of the car while she veered onto the bike path and slammed into my daughter.

That day taught me an important lesson. It’s the same lesson so many others learn as they struggle to make sense of the death of a loved one to an individual who drove drunk: You can’t trust people to make the right choice. Tragedy after tragedy after tragedy has proven that some drivers don’t care if they put others at risk. As a result, deaths from drunk driving crashes have hovered above 10,000 for five years in a row, according to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

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Since the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) 40 years ago, education, enforcement and engineering (what safety experts term the 3E strategies) have reduced drunk driving deaths by 52 percent. But drunk driving deaths have hit a plateau in recent years. We have made as much progress using the 3E’s as possible.

What, then, can get us the rest of the way to ending drunk driving? Technology. Systems weren’t available 21 years ago to intervene and save my daughter. But today, the auto industry has the resources and expertise to make safety advancements like drunk driving prevention a reality, much the same way it has used its research-and-development prowess for self-driving vehicles, electrification and many safety innovations.

Two technologies in particular would stop drunks from driving: Driver monitoring systems can detect signs of distracted, impaired or fatigued driving; and alcohol detection systems use sensors to determine that a driver is under the influence of alcohol and then prevent the vehicle from moving. These systems can save more than 9,400 lives a year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Auto industry manufacturers and suppliers have been active on drunk driving prevention technology R&D for at least the last 10-15 years. To move this lifesaving technology from the research and development stage into an installation requirement for all new automobiles, however, federally mandated safety standards are needed. A standard-setting process will compel the industry to act.

Bipartisan legislation was introduced in 2019 that would require NHTSA to conduct a technology neutral rulemaking that results in a requirement for drunk driving prevention in all new vehicles in the near future. With the leadership of Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellLawmakers offer gun control bill to end 'boyfriend loophole' Michigan Democrat Dingell on violent rhetoric: 'I've had men in front of my house with assault weapons' Dingell 'very concerned' about lowering threshold for stimulus MORE (D-Mich.), Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chairwoman Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyHouse Democrats press Facebook on role as a 'breeding ground for polarization' Facebook, Google, Twitter CEOs to testify at House hearing on misinformation Democrats introduce measure to boost privacy, security of health data during pandemic MORE (D-Ill.), the House passed its version in 2020: the HALT (Honoring Abbas Family Legacy to Terminate Drunk Driving) Act. Dingell proposed this groundbreaking legislation in honor of a family of five from her area that was killed by a wrong way drunk driver in early 2019. The Senate’s RIDE (Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone) Act was pending with bipartisan support, including from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), when the 116th Congress ended. Dingell plans to reintroduce legislation this year in the House.

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The need for such legislation is more urgent than ever. Drunk driving has spiked during the pandemic, despite fewer miles traveled and far fewer people going to bars and restaurants. The fastest way to require automakers to make drunk driving prevention systems standard in every vehicle is through federal regulation.

Investigators for the crash that killed my daughter said she could see the car coming at her before it took her life. All these years later, how many more drunk drivers do we need to see coming at us before we get drunk driving prevention technology into all new vehicles? The time to act is now.

Helen Witty is immediate past president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving® (MADD). MADD is the nation’s largest nonprofit working to end the scourge of drunk driving.