Death Of 9 In Drunk Driving Crash Prompts Call For Impairment Detection Systems

October 1, 2022

By Terri Jo Neff |

Last year’s fiery death of two adults and seven children in a head-on collision involving a drunk driver in California has prompted the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to recommend all new vehicles in the U.S. be equipped with a device capable of preventing or limiting a vehicle’s operation if driver impairment by alcohol is detected.

The NTSB recommendation calls on the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) to adopt new manufacturing requirements to include passive vehicle-integrated alcohol impairment detection systems, advanced driver monitoring systems, or a combination of both in an effort to prevent impaired drivers from getting on the road.

“Vehicle-integrated passive alcohol detection technologies that prevent or limit impaired drivers from operating their vehicles have significant lifesaving potential; however, development of the technologies has been slow, and additional action is needed to accelerate progress in implementing these technologies,” according to the NTSB report of the deadly 2021 California crash.

That report released in September argues such a device would have likely kept a heavily intoxicated driver off a highway the night of Jan. 1, 2021. The unidentified driver lost control of his SUV at speeds between 88 and 98 mph and crossed the centerline where the SUV crashed head-on with a pickup truck.

The pickup truck was occupied by an adult driver and seven children ages 6 to 15. The truck immediately caught on fire and was fully engulfed before other drivers could extricate the occupants.

The SUV driver and all eight people in the truck died at the scene.

But NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homendy says the “heartbreaking crash” could have been prevented with readily available technology, “just as it can prevent the tens of thousands of fatalities from impaired-driving and speeding-related crashes we see in the U.S. annually.”

The official findings in the California incident also included a renewed call for the NHTSA to incentivize passenger vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) systems which alert a driver if a vehicle travels above the speed limit. Some newer ISA products can even automatically restrict the vehicle from traveling above a predetermined speed.

However, the five-member NTSB is not waiting for the NHTSA to adopt new manufacturing standards, which could take two or three years.

The agency has publicly called out the Alliance for Automotive Innovation—whose members manufacture nearly all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States—to encourage the development and deployment of technology to combat alcohol-impaired driving.

Data recently released by the NHTSA shows roughly one in three traffic fatalities in the U.S. resulted from crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. And the number of such impaired driver crashes is increasing.

Arizona is no different, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation, which shows the number of traffic fatalities in the state from all causes rose last year to 1,180, the highest level in 15 years. Of those, 243 deaths were alcohol related, up from six percent from 2020.

The full 2021 Arizona Motor Vehicle Crash Facts report is available here.

The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged by Congress to investigate a variety of transportation accidents, including aircrafts, railroads, boats, and pipelines. It also has authority to investigate “significant accidents” which occur on highways. Another responsibility of the NTSB is to issue safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents.

Any of those recommendations concerning highways are made to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) within the U.S. Department of Transportation. Among its authorities is the setting of and enforcement of safety standards.

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