NTSB Suggests Alcohol Detection Systems On All New Cars

December 17, 2012

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its annual report on traffic fatalities in the U.S., and the results for 2011 were encouraging. Not only did the total number of deaths on U.S. roads decline (from 32,885 in 2010 to 32,367 in 2011), but the ratio of fatalities to miles-traveled also fell, reaching another all-time low.

We also saw a 2.5% decline in fatalities related to drunk driving, which was encouraging. However, alcohol remained a factor in 9,878 deaths, or just over 30% of the total. It doesn't take a mathematician to see that reducing drunk driving in the U.S. would have a substantial impact on roadway accidents, injuries, and fatalities.

In a press release, the National Transportation Safety Board has suggested two ways of addressing the problem:

1. Mandating that states require alcohol-ignition interlocks for all DWI offenders. An alcohol-ignition interlock prevents a vehicle's engine from starting until the driver breathes into the device and that breath is analyzed for alcohol content. While many states require such devices for repeat offenders, only 17 states require them for people convicted of their first DWI. NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman says that ignition interlocks have a strong track record of success and will help reduce the problem of alcohol-related accidents: "The first step to address the number one killer on our roadways is to do what is proven to be effective."

2. Development of in-car technology for all vehicles that determines the blood-alcohol level of the driver. Unlike interlock systems, this new technology would rely on passive information provided by the driver -- say, from the air in the cabin, or perhaps sensors on the steering wheel. It wouldn't interfere with the conventional driving routine, but would instead analyze on-the-go. While there are many potential obstacles to overcome in perfecting this kind of technology -- for example, separating the driver's breath from that of her passengers, or distinguishing between a wine stain on someone's clothes and wine on his breath -- it's likely only a matter of time before those problems are solved.

The NTSB issued these recommendations as part of a report on accidents caused by wrong-way driving (i.e. by motorists driving against the flow of traffic). Alcohol is involved in roughly 60% of those accidents. While not every alcohol-related accident involves wrong-way driving, and not every wrong-way driving accident involves alcohol, the NTSB report implies that such situations reveal America's roadway challenges in microcosm.

The NTSB report went on to say that another 15% of wrong-way driving accidents are caused by older drivers. To address such problems, the NTSB recommends the improvement of lighting and signage along roadways; in-car technology that could inform motorists when they're driving against traffic; and enhanced safety programs for seniors. 

You can download an abstract of the NTSB report in PDF format at NTSB.gov.

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