The federal agency responsible for conducting independent crash investigations has recommended technologies in new vehicles to limit speeding and prevent impaired driving in an effort to cut a growing number of related fatalities.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation on alcohol impairment detection systems is headed toward a requirement, after the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act gave the Transportation Department three years to create a mandate for such a feature in new vehicles. However, the board’s re-recommendation to incentivize intelligent speed-adjustment systems has yet to gain broader federal support and may face resistance from American drivers accustomed to speed limits being enforced by police rather than the vehicle itself.
The NTSB’s recommendations — which cannot be implemented without being approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — specifically include requiring all new vehicles to have “passive vehicle-integrated alcohol detection systems, advanced driver monitoring systems, or a combination of the two that would be able to prevent or limit the vehicle’s operation if it detects the driver’s impairment from alcohol.”
Reiterating a 2017 recommendation, the NTSB also suggested NHTSA encourage “vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt intelligent speed adaptation (ISA) systems that would prevent speed-related crashes.”
Intelligent cruise control systems can range from a warning system that provides visual or audible warnings when a driver is speeding to a system that electronically limits the speed of a vehicle. The NTSB did not specify what type of system would be used.
An investigation into a crash in California that killed nine people, including seven children, on New Year’s Day 2021 led to Tuesday’s recommendations, according to the NTSB. Investigators, the agency said, “found that the driver of the SUV (involved in the crash) had a high level of alcohol intoxication and was speeding.”
NTSB Chairman Jennifer Homendy said Tuesday that the technologies “could prevent the tens of thousands of impaired driving and speed-related crashes we see in the United States annually.”
Thirty-two people die in alcohol-related crashes every day — more than 11,000 each year, according to NHTSA. It reported that the death toll rose by 5% in 2021.
There are a number of technologies aimed at preventing impaired driving being evaluated by the Department of Transportation, according to the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The department was given three years to craft a requirement that new vehicles have “advanced technology for drunk and impaired driving” as part of the infrastructure law, which was passed with bipartisan support last year.
NHTSA said in a statement Monday that it “has begun work to meet the bipartisan Infrastructure Act’s rulemaking requirements regarding advanced disabled driving technology in vehicles.”
Such technologies include cameras and sensors outside a vehicle that monitor driving performance, cameras and sensors inside a vehicle that monitor a driver’s head and eyes, and alcohol sensors to determine whether a driver is intoxicated and then prevent the vehicle from moving.
The potential regulation has sparked privacy concerns and questions about whether the systems will misclassify certain people, such as the disabled, as intoxicated.
Intelligent cruise control systems have gained some traction in the European market, where they will be mandatory in all new cars sold there from July 2024. The new cars will either issue a “cascaded acoustic warning”, a “cascaded vibrating warning”, “haptic feedback through the accelerator pedal” or a “speed control function”, according to the European Commission. A driver can override the ISA system, the Commission says.
New York City is also piloting a fleet of city vehicles with an ISA system in place. The city announced in August that 50 vehicles operated by city employees will have systems that will set a maximum speed for the vehicle and “will also be adaptable based on the local speed limit.” The system has an active modality, which automatically brakes a vehicle, and passive modality, which will alert a driver when they are speeding.
The vehicles will be retrofitted and installed in vehicles across a number of city departments, and will also be tested on 14 new all-electric Ford Mach Es.
This story has been updated with comment from NHTSA.