Could the Infrastructure Bill End Drunk Driving?Historians in the News
tags: safety, regulation, automobiles, Driving
When President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill in 2021, he committed $1.2 trillion to rebuilding the nation’s roads and bridges. The president spearheaded one of the biggest investments in infrastructure in decades: more than $42 billion for broadband equity, $30 billion for public transportation, and $148 billion for national highways. But as the 2024 presidential campaign nears, Democrats are struggling to raise voters’ awareness of the changes outlined in the law. Only 24 percent of voters even know that the law passed. So it isn’t surprising that a small but significant section has not been widely discussed: Tucked within the bill is a provision that advocates say could end drunk driving in the United States.
The bill calls for the Secretary of Transportation to issue a rule in 2024 requiring all new passenger cars to be equipped with technology that can “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired” and “prevent or limit motor vehicle operation if an impairment is detected.” Put simply, if someone has a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, he or she will not be able to start the car.
The auto industry has been notoriously slow in implementing safety standards, a point consumer advocate pioneer Ralph Nader famously brought to the public’s attention with his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed. But, in thinking about drunk driving, it’s helpful to remember that the public has sometimes been even slower to catch on.
The fight over seat belts is a salient example. Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959. The US Department of Transportation didn’t start requiring seat belts in new cars until 1968. Even then, people didn’t want to wear them. Seatbelt use was so low that NHTSA mandated that cars manufactured in the 1974 model year be equipped with seat belt interlocks that would prevent a car from starting if the front seat belts weren’t buckled. (In 2009, the late writer Mike Davis suggested that such devices could have prevented drunk driving. “Even though the sequential logic required by the interlock to start the car was simple, it was—and still is—my conviction that drunks would have been unable to handle it,” he wrote in The Detroit Bureau.)
But consumers were outraged, and Congress quickly eliminated the requirement. Even though seat belt usage could have become nearly universal in the 1970s, its use only surpassed 90 percent nationwide in 2016, according to NHTSA.
Now, advocates say that technology alone can bring the number of fatalities to zero. But that tech is still a ways away from being implemented. Whereas advanced safety features typically appear first in high-end cars and are then mandated for all vehicles, no cars on the market currently promise to prevent drunk driving, John Mohr, a historian of technology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, tells me.
“One of the things that makes the anti-drunk driving mandate interesting is that currently, that technology is just not out there,” he says. “There are various theories about current technologies that could be adapted for that purpose, but the actual direct use of them to prevent drunk driving is not available to consumers yet.”
A mandate for a not-yet-viable technology has precedent in the emissions reduction requirements of the 1970s, Mohr notes. “There was a big outcry from manufacturers because they had very limited technology that was available to them at the time,” he says. But that regulatory mandate spurred innovation, and by the 1980s, cars were much more efficient. Given the history of innovation spurred by regulation, Mohr thinks it’s “very likely” that anti-drunk driving tech will be standard within the next few model years.
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