The former head of a federal traffic safety agency on Thursday accused the auto industry of dragging out the implementation of a technology that could keep thousands of drunk drivers off the road.
Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), urged Congress to pass a law that would require automakers to include passive ignition-interlock systems in all new motor vehicles within as little as three years. She said the notion of using technology to effectively immobilize drunk drivers has been around at least since 2006 and has been in use for several years now. The systems should be incorporated into all new vehicles, along with seat belts, rearview cameras and other lifesaving devices, she said.
“I don’t know what’s the matter with the industry on this issue,” Claybrook said during testimony Thursday before the House consumer protection and commerce subcommittee.
Ignition interlocks are devices that use breathalyzer-like technology to prevent a vehicle from starting if a driver has been drinking a certain amount of alcohol. Thirty-two states now require that the devices be installed in a first-time offender’s vehicle. Claybrook, who was testifying on behalf of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said adding the ignition interlock devices to all new vehicles could save 7,000 lives a year by preventing drunk drivers from starting their vehicles.
Yet, the federal government has spent millions since 2008 on a public-private initiative with the automotive industry to develop such technology, known as Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), and it’s still not clear when it will appear in the marketplace.
“Where is this system?” Claybrook asked.” It didn’t take that long to produce air bags. Air bags are a lot more complicated than this . . . and they cost a lot more.”
But Robert Strassburger, who heads a coalition of automakers working with the federal government to develop such technology, said one form of the passive interlock technology could be available for use by large commercial fleets next year.
Claybrook was not the only safety advocate to express impatience with the progress on DADSS. The goal of the initiative — a joint undertaking of NHTSA and 17 automakers in the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety — is to create interlock devices that would use breath or a touch of the finger to determine whether a person has a blood alcohol level that would make it dangerous to drive.
Their testimony coincides with an overall rise in U.S. traffic deaths, particularly among pedestrians and other vulnerable users, and a stubborn lack of progress in further reducing deaths caused by drunken driving. Yet evidence shows that installing ignition interlock devices in the vehicles of people convicted of drunken driving has had a significant, beneficial impact on traffic safety.
West Virginia, for example, found that recidivism among drunk drivers fell by 77 percent after the state began requiring first-time offenders to put the devices in their vehicles. A study by University of Michigan researchers estimated that installing interlocks in every new vehicle sold in the United States could cut drunken-driving fatalities by 85 percent over 15 years. David Kelly, executive director of the Coalition of Ignition Interlock Manufacturers, told the panel that the devices have stopped more than 2.7 million attempts at driving by people who were impaired or intoxicated.
Helen Witty, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), said the federal government could move things along by requiring that the technology be installed in its fleet of vehicles. That happened with air bags, and it helped expedite their delivery to the market, she said.
“Our goal is to get this technology into vehicles for consumers to purchase as soon as possible,” she said.
Witty also urged lawmakers not to be distracted by the need to address drugged driving, too. While that’s a concern for MADD, particularly as more states legalize marijuana use, she said technology that might stop a marijuana user from driving is nowhere on the horizon because of difficulties determining levels of impairment. But it’s established science and law to bar people from driving if their blood alcohol levels are above 0.08 percent, and machines have been able to detect those readings for years.
Strassburger, who is president and chief executive of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, said engineers are still working to ensure that the devices are accurate, quick and unobtrusive. He suggested that a safety system that “hassled” sober drivers who had not been drinking might trigger the sort of pushback that seat-belt buzzers created years ago and might make it harder for the technology to catch on.