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Hugh Bailey: The technology to end drunken driving is coming

 Death on the highway is terrifyingly common.


People are notoriously bad at assessing risk, which is why we worry about unlikely events but are dismissive about real dangers. Among hazards we might encounter in the real world, it’s hard to imagine something more terrifying than a wrong-way crash on the interstate.


In one night last month, Connecticut highways saw two such collisions, which combined left six people dead. And the scariest thing is how common it was. If six people died in one night from some other cause, we might have seen an outpouring of public discussion on how to keep us safe, and a demand for ways to prevent such tragedies from recurring. Instead, it was just another day on the roads.


Driving is dangerous for many reasons, but driver impairment remains the No. 1 cause of crashes. (Important note — these aren’t “accidents.”) It’s true that distractions are a growing problem, especially with the rise of in-dash computer systems, but no one gets on a highway in the wrong direction because they’re answering a text. The problem is driver impairment, and the most common cause is alcohol or drug use.


Drunken driving is the kind of danger we should spend time worrying about, because there’s hardly any way to get around in Connecticut without driving and no guarantee the person in the two-ton vehicle next to you hasn’t been sitting in a bar for the last six hours. Enforcement is helpful, but there will never be enough police to stop everyone who poses a danger.


Technology, though, could come close to solving this crisis.


Coverage of the federal infrastructure package signed late last year by President Joe Biden focused mostly on roads and bridges, with equal attention on what wasn’t in the bill, meaning most of the Biden agenda. All that — billions in spending on necessary programs — is in a separate bill that’s going nowhere because one senator from West Virginia seems to think that increasing the child tax credit will lead to more opioid deaths, and the fact that the literal opposite is true hasn’t budged its progress.


But also in the bill that passed was a measure that will require starting in 2026 for all new cars to include technology including sensors in seats and panels that can sense alcohol coming from the driver and render the vehicle inoperable. The sensors could also detect whether the driver’s eyes are on the road, and if the car starts swerving or if a driver’s eyes start closing, the vehicle would no longer be drivable.


People will understandably need assurances that such actions would not themselves constitute a risk, but the important part is keeping impaired drivers off the roads. Some 10,000 deaths every year in this country are blamed on drunken driving, and advocates estimate the widespread use of this technology could cut that number by 94 percent.


Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal was a key supporter of the measure, which had bipartisan support (which doesn’t mean the broader bill did — Republicans may have liked the anti-drunk-driving part but not enough to give the president a win). Blumenthal said he’s been working for decades on laws to save lives on the highway, and only now has the technology caught up.


“This is a longstanding cause for me, but back then we didn’t have technology like we do now,” he said in a phone interview. “This could literally virtually eliminate drunk driving, and it’s within reach because of advances in technology.”


There will be pushback as this gets closer, just as people once protested against seatbelts and still complain about motorcycle helmets. But this isn’t about the operator’s freedom — it’s about everyone else on the roads. No one has the right to drive drunk.


The real problem is the timeline, and how widely it will be used. Automakers asked for time to prepare for the technology to be worked into every new car, which is fair. But even after it takes effect, the mandate would apply only to new cars. Every existing car will remain as dangerous as ever, meaning it will take years, or decades, before all cars are equipped with it.


That can’t happen. Congress should act again and require that all cars, new and old, have these products installed by a certain date, even if it’s several years away. A new law could include money to help pay for it, but it’s not enough to simply hope that people will do this — it needs to be required. Every time a car goes in for an emissions check it could also be checked for anti-drunk-driving measures.


There are many reasons driving is so dangerous, and this won’t solve all of them. Road design is a serious problem, and cars are built to go much faster than is allowed on any highway in America. But, as long as we realize this is only a step, this is a sign of progress that should be celebrated.

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