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Safety agency works to reduce drunken driving after FAST Act

Safety agency works to reduce drunken driving after FAST Act
© Greg Nash

A transportation bill has enabled expanded state grants for anti-drunken driving education efforts, but the federal government says it is still working to advance in-vehicle technology that can help prevent impaired driving.

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National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief Mark Rosekind assured lawmakers in a recent letter that the agency is taking a series of steps to decrease the number of alcohol-impaired motorists who get behind the wheel.

A bipartisan group of senators asked the agency last month how the NHTSA is implementing provisions on drunken driving and other safety issues included in the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which Congress passed in December 2015.

“Safety on our roads must remain a top priority,” the lawmakers said. “Prompt action by NHTSA to implement FAST Act safety provisions would help reduce fatalities in relation to impaired and distracted driving.”

Alcohol-impaired driving resulted in nearly 10,000 deaths in 2014 and took a $44 billion economic toll, according to the NHTSA. There was also a 9.3 percent increase in highway crash fatalities during the first nine months of 2015 compared to the previous year, which stepped up pressure on lawmakers to include a number of safety provisions in the transportation bill.

“I assure you that NHTSA is moving as quickly as possible to implement these and other life-saving provisions,” Rosekind wrote in a letter obtained by The Hill.

The FAST Act made it easier for states to receive grants under the National Priority Safety Program, which helps states address drug- and alcohol-impaired driving, seat belt use, distracted driving and graduated driver licensing.

Before the transportation bill’s passage, lawmakers lamented that while deaths from distracted driving were climbing, a pot of money was going unused because states were having trouble qualifying for the safety grants.

Rosekind pointed out that the NHTSA just issued an interim final rule last month allowing states to apply for fiscal 2017 grants under the new guidelines or under the existing procedures.

“This flexibility will ensure that money Congress authorized to help save lives is put to use as quickly as possible,” he said.

The NHTSA, which is hosting a Twitter chat on drunken driving ahead of the July 4 holiday, was also authorized to implement a High-Visibility Enforcement Program that supports four annual public awareness campaigns and stepped-up law enforcement activities that target seat belt use and impaired driving.

Because of the FAST act, Rosekind said, the agency is able to provide a more predictable funding stream for states to tackle traffic safety issues.
 
But NHTSA is still working to develop and test in-vehicle technology that can stop an impaired motorist from starting up a vehicle’s engine. The FAST Act reauthorized and required research on the technology, known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS).

“NHTSA is in full agreement that DADSS research is critically important,” Rosekind said. “ NHTSA aims to accelerate the development and testing of the DADSS technologies so that manufacturers can offer the technology to consumers in the near future.”