Cars will be required to ‘prevent or limit operation' by impaired drivers under a proposed government regulation

A bipartisan group of Senators released the initial draft of a large new bipartisan infrastructure package on Sunday, proposing over a trillion dollars in expenditure and a wide range of far-reaching proposals. However, a little-noticed part of the law may have major ramifications in the fight against drunk driving, perhaps mandating new in-car safety equipment to actively prohibit Americans from driving while impaired.

The proposal, which is titled "Advanced Intoxicated Driving Technology," would compel the Department of Transportation to establish a new standard for detecting and preventing impaired driving. The law mandates that the Secretary of Transportation issue a standard within three years, with the requirement taking effect three years later for new automobiles. The standard's particular requirements are unclear, but it would require automobiles to "passively monitor a driver's performance to properly determine if the driver may be intoxicated" and "prevent or limit motor vehicle operation" if an impairment is detected.

The exact method for building such a system is yet unknown, although proponents claim that most of the technology is already accessible. Some Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes Benz vehicles already include driver monitoring systems, which watch a driver's face or eyelids to verify they are aware and actively operating the car. Lane detection systems might potentially be used to identify impairment, alerting the driver if they repeatedly stray beyond their lane.

“This technology didn't exist twenty years ago,” says Jason Levine of the Center for Auto Safety. “However, the technology is now available. We can put technology in cars that can detect whether someone is intoxicated and prevent them from injuring themselves or others.”

Importantly, the new norm would not apply only to inebriated drivers. Because the methods assess impairment directly, they might detect impairment caused by prescription medications, mental anguish, or simple distraction. In the longer-term, a push would be made to enforce passive alcohol monitoring devices in all vehicles, such as those being researched by Volvo right now.

While the rules seek to establish a new requirement for manufacturers, this is still a long way off. Legislative negotiations on the infrastructure bill are still ongoing, and the provision might be deleted or changed at any time. Even if it becomes law, the Department of Transportation will have broad discretion over how and when the mandate is implemented, and may potentially go beyond the timetable established by Congress.

Nonetheless, car safety advocates view this as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to combat drunk driving, which, according to some estimates, kills as many as 10,000 people each year. Cathy Chase, head of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, adds, “This will take some time, but you have to start somewhere.” “All of these innovations, including seatbelts, airbags, and electronic stability control, began with this type of rulemaking.”

Nonetheless, the new regulations may meet substantial political opposition. Previously, safety features were only add-ons that protected users in the case of a collision. However, an impaired driving detector would immediately limit the vehicle's functioning, prohibiting people from driving when they might otherwise want to.