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Nov. 16, 2021, 8:37 a.m. EST

Infrastructure law mandates new technology to prevent drunk driving — here’s how it would work

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By Victor Reklaitis

With more than 2,700 pages of text, the bipartisan infrastructure law is chock-full of provisions — including one that mandates new technology to prevent drunk driving.

Such technology, says one auto-industry executive working to develop it, involves breath-based or touch-based sensors that function without drivers having to do anything differently as they start their engines.

“It’s novel technology that will be able to measure your either breath or blood alcohol concentration — very rapidly with high precision and accuracy — without you doing anything that you aren’t doing now, when you’re interacting with your car,” said Robert Strassburger, president and CEO of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, a group based in the Washington, D.C., area and made up of the major automakers, including Ford /zigman2/quotes/208911460/composite F +2.71% , GM /zigman2/quotes/205226835/composite GM +4.03% , Chrysler parent Stellantis /zigman2/quotes/204248628/composite STLA +0.97% , Toyota /zigman2/quotes/200537742/composite TM +1.16% , Volkswagen /zigman2/quotes/203434344/delayed XE:VOW3 +0.10% and Honda /zigman2/quotes/207173990/composite HMC +1.32% .

“If you are over the legal limit, or some other limit that you might set, it would not allow the car to start, or the car would start but not move, or give you a warning, depending on how it’s integrated into a vehicle. All three of those are options,” Strassburger added.

“Ultimately, it would give you, the driver, or you, the parent, the added peace of mind that you yourself are good to go, or your child maybe driving the car that night is good to go.”

The maximum level for blood alcohol content (BAC) in nearly all U.S. states is 0.08% for people 21 or older.

The bipartisan infrastructure law, known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, says the U.S. Department of Transportation, acting through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, must issue a new standard for “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology” in new vehicles no later than three years after the bill’s enactment, meaning potentially in 2024. The act is silent on other details, such as whether the anti-drunk driving technology definitely would immobilize a car, or only give a warning.

President Joe Biden signed the infrastructure package into law on Monday. That’s after the Democratic-run Senate passed it on Aug. 10 in a 69-30 vote, and the House of Representatives approved the measure on Nov. 5 in a 228-206 vote.

The NHTSA and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, Strassburger’s group, have been working together to develop the new technology through what’s known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety research program , or DADSS. The program is tackling a big problem, as an estimated 10,000-plus people are killed each year in the U.S. because of drunk driving.

“That’s a tragedy in and of itself, and for every person that is lost, there’s untold family members, colleagues, etc. that are impacted as well,” Strassburger said.

Privacy concerns

Automakers are aware of the privacy worries raised by the new technology to prevent drunk driving, Strassburger said.

“We think we’ve addressed that with the ‘Consumer Privacy Protection Principles,'” he said, referring to guidelines for personal data that carmakers have agreed to meet or exceed. “There are other concerns related to that. We’re committed to addressing those concerns.”

Strassburger said surveys have found about 75% of respondents think the DADSS program is a good idea.

“Surprisingly, those that identify as heavy drinkers actually wanted more. They want the help,” he told MarketWatch.

The Center for Democracy & Technology’s Samir Jain, meanwhile, argues there should be more protections for personal information than the industry principles. His organization advocates for privacy rights and for stronger controls on surveillance programs.

“Industry best practices alone — it’s usually not a reliable or foolproof way of really protecting user privacy, because they have their particular interests, and sometimes may not appreciate all the concerns,” said Jain, who is the organization’s director of policy and a former Obama administration official.

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