If it were up to the NTSB, new vehicles would contain technologies that could prevent alcohol-impaired drivers from using their vehicles as well as limit speeding. This would take the form of “passive vehicle-integrated alcohol impairment detection systems, advanced driver monitoring systems, or a combination of the two,” which would limit or prohibit vehicle operation if alcohol impairment is detected. Although the NTSB did not specify how this would work in the context of private vehicles, its imagined solution might imitate the passive alcohol sensor (PAS) used by law enforcement. A PAS detects the presence of alcohol in the air around a person’s face as they speak or exhale.
The NTSB is also calling for incentives for vehicle manufacturers to include “intelligent speed adaptation systems” in new cars. This isn’t the first time the NTSB has made such a suggestion; it advocated for the widespread installment of such systems back in 2017 after conducting a study on speeding-related fatalities. Because the NTSB does not have any enforcement capabilities and can only make transportation-related recommendations, it’s up to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) whether its suggestions will ever come to fruition.
The crash that spurred the NTSB’s recommendation occurred on New Year’s Day in Avenal, California. The driver, who’d just left a party, had a blood alcohol concentration that was more than double California’s legal limit. He was driving at least 30 miles per hour over the posted speed limit when he swerved off the road and over-corrected, resulting in a head-on collision with a pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction. The pickup truck immediately caught fire, and passersby and first responders did not have a chance to remove either the driver or the pickup truck’s child passengers before they passed.
“Technology could’ve prevented this heartbreaking crash—just as it can prevent the tens of thousands of fatalities from impaired-driving and speeding-related crashes we see in the US annually,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy in the organization’s statement. “We need to implement the technologies we have right here, right now to save lives.”
Alcohol-impaired driving results in thousands of fatalities per year. According to the NHTSA, one in every three traffic fatalities (about 11,654 total deaths) that occurred in 2020 involved an alcohol-impaired driver.