Shannon Valentine is Virginia secretary of transportation and serves as chair of the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

The new year presents an opportunity to amend old habits and introduce new ones. I invite Virginians across the commonwealth to join us in our efforts to keep everyone on our roads safe from the effects of impaired driving. Social distancing has not reduced the frequency of drunken driving — which puts all road users in danger.

In fact, drunken driving remains one of the most significant threats to road safety. By Dec. 8, Virginia had already surpassed the total number of deaths for alcohol-related crashes in 2019 (253 compared with 249), representing more than a quarter (30 percent) of roadway fatalities in the commonwealth. Additionally, preliminary data indicates alcohol-related driving led to more than 3,500 injuries in 2020.

These could be your family members, friends, colleagues or neighbors — and the effects can be devastating and lifelong.

Given these troubling statistics and our mission to be a leader in the fight against drunken driving, Virginia jumped at the opportunity to join a first-of-its-kind technological solution that tackles this problem. The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) program is developing advanced alcohol sensors with the ability to unobtrusively and precisely detect the blood alcohol level of a driver.

This system is different from anything on the market or in development. If the sensor detects a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 or higher — the legal limit for driving in the commonwealth — the vehicle will start but not move. This technology, when available, could drastically reduce the number of drunken-driving deaths in Virginia.

According to a study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, equipping all vehicles with such an alcohol detection system could prevent more than a quarter of fatalities on U.S. roadways, saving more than 9,000 lives each year. Before this promising technology can come to fruition, it requires rigorous testing to ensure its reliability. Building public support is also key to promoting widespread acceptance among automobile manufacturers and drivers. That is where Virginia comes in.

Virginia is known for prioritizing innovation, and we were excited to be the first state partner to join the DADSS program on the Driven to Protect initiative to bring this lifesaving technology to the commonwealth and test it on our roads. We believe in the purpose and potential of this tool and are committed to helping it continue to advance.

Since August 2018, the initiative has partnered with James River Transportation (JRT), a family-owned transportation company that has served Virginians for nearly 100 years, to test prototype alcohol detection sensors in its fleet vehicles. This partnership is already helping prepare the technology to be road-ready. In the first two years, JRT fleet vehicles drove nearly 52,000 miles and gathered more than 46,000 breath samples from sober drivers. DADSS program engineers have used this real-world data, along with feedback from JRT drivers, to improve the technology and make it ready for its eventual integration into vehicles so it can be offered to consumers as an optional safety feature.

In 2019, Driven to Protect attended events all over the commonwealth to give Virginians a firsthand experience with the prototype sensors. Though the coronavirus pandemic has paused in-person engagements since early 2020, Driven to Protect has launched a suite of online resources to provide the same in-depth look at the technology and the development process. The new Discovery Hub has interactive lessons and videos designed to educate Virginians about the dangers of drunken driving and inform them about the advanced technology Virginia is helping to develop to save lives.

We all have a responsibility to make our roadways safer, and Virginia takes this responsibility very seriously. When faced with such persistent challenges as impaired driving, we must continue to pursue new solutions. While Virginia remains committed to proven interventions that are saving lives daily on our roads — from education, to ignition interlocks for those convicted of drunken driving, to high-visibility enforcement — we are also proud to be leading the nation with Driven to Protect.

With the passion and innovation found in our communities, we continue to harness the power and promise of this technology to realize our ultimate goal. Together, we can save lives and make sure that everyone — in Virginia and across the country — makes it home safely.

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