Traffic flows over the American Legion Bridge along I-495, the Capitol Beltway. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
The infrastructure bill, passed on Friday by the U.S. House includes a provision that mandates new passenger vehicles be equipped with tech to stop drinking and driving.
The end goal, supporters say, is to achieve what decades of varied — and often harsh — drunk-driving laws have failed to do: eliminate driving while intoxicated completely.
“To put this technology in a vehicle is going to be cost-effective and long-overdue,” said former defense attorney and state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas. “It’s going to save hundreds and hundreds of lives annually, and at some point in the future, it will practically eliminate DWI fatalities across the board.”
Prevention not punishment
Andrew Martinez, better known to the public as hip-hop artist Wake Self, sustained fatal injuries when a drunk driver crashed into his car going 60 mph on the wrong side of West Alameda in Santa Fe in November 2019.
His brother Eric said Wake Self was known for his community-focused work and beloved by thousands.
The brothers grew up in New Mexico, and Eric Martinez said a number of their friends and acquaintances have DWI convictions.
“You don’t want to see anybody lose a family member to drunk driving, or you don’t want to see anybody get seriously hurt,” he said. “On the flip side of that, you don’t want to see somebody who you’re close with, a friend, as being a drunk driver. It’s a bad situation all the way around,.”
He said he supports the technology requirement as an approach to DWI.
“A lot of people talk about reactive measures — making punishments harsher, or making the jail sentences harsher,” Martinez said. “And that’s all after the fact that one of these tragedies occurs. In my opinion, this new legislation would be a proactive measure — or a preventative measure — where it eliminates the possibility of someone actually driving drunk.”
Arrest data from the FBI indicates the typical drunk driver has more than 80 episodes of impaired driving before their first arrest.
Rep. Maestas said the future vehicle safety tech will not only prevent those 80 times that the driver isn’t caught, but also keep people out of the criminal legal system altogether.
How it would work
Some critics are concerned that the technology — especially the blood alcohol detectors — may not be accurate, as has been the case with breath tests, according to a 2019 investigation by the New York Times.
Types of tech
Driving-performance monitoring looks for erratic driving through cameras and sensors on the outside of the car. It’s a lot of the technology that is already on new cars today that offer lane-departure warnings, Otte said.
The other category is driver monitoring, which would have cameras either in the dash or in the rearview mirror to evaluate a driver’s gaze. This is said to either detect impairment from that gaze, or if a person’s looking down for too long or not paying attention, it will alert the driver. Volvos have had this type of internal monitoring system since last year, and when the sensors trigger the alert too many times, the car will pull itself over safely, Otte said.
The third type of technology is alcohol detection. This includes sensors in the start button or in the steering wheel that can detect how much alcohol is in a person’s skin or sweat. Toyota has been touting an alcohol-detection system in their steering wheels, and many new cars are already equipped with the technology to pull over when they detect impaired drivers.
The first two types (driver performance and driver monitoring systems) could also prevent those who are under the influence of multiple substances from continuing to operate a vehicle.
The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration will be charged with selecting the technology required in new vehicles. The new standard will incorporate one or a combination of three types of technology: driving-performance monitoring, driver monitoring or alcohol detection.
MADD released a report in May that listed 241 different types of technology. Alex Otte, national president of the organization, said what’s being rolled out is different than an ignition interlock.
“An interlock is a punitive measure for someone that has done the bad thing,” she said. “Rather this technology — all of the different types of technology that are being considered — are entirely passive.”.
“So the drunk or otherwise impaired driver will get in the car, and it either won’t start or will pull itself over once it detects impairment,” Otte said. “The sober driver will never even know it’s there.”
Maestas predicted it will take about 20 years for more cars on the roads to have the technology than not.
The conversation around the U.S.
The final rules from the Traffic Safety Administration will be required within three years. After that, car manufacturers will have one to two years to implement the driving safety standards.
New Mexico’s U.S. Senate delegation has advocated for some form of mandated anti-DWI technology for at least three years.
Former New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall introduced the Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone (RIDE) Act in 2019. Sen. Ben Ray Luján and Florida’s Sen. Rick Scott introduced the same legislation in April and then worked with legislative colleagues to have it included in the infrastructure package.
Reps. Debra Dingell, D-MI, Kathleen Rice, D-NY, and David McKinley, R-WV, also introduced similar legislation in the House.
“This bipartisan infrastructure legislation marks the most significant investment in our nation’s infrastructure in generations,” Luján said. “I was proud to vote to pass this legislation in August and secure key priorities for New Mexico – including putting an end to drunk and impaired driving.”
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