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Infrastructure bill includes key consumer safety measures to prevent drunk drivers, avoid hot car child deaths

In 2018, 53 children died after they were left in the back seat of a car in sweltering temperatures.
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The infrastructure bill awaiting a Senate vote includes a number of automotive safety measures, one requiring new technology to keep drunk drivers off the road and another that alerts drivers who may have inadvertently left a child in their vehicle.

Drunk driving kills another American every 52 minutes, according to the NHTSA. Over the past five years, annual deaths have averaged over 10,000 deaths, or nearly 30 percent of total highway fatalities, NHTSA data shows.

Those already convicted of drunk driving offenses may already have to prove they are sober, using technology similar to a police Breathalyzer. They blow into a tube, with sensors then detecting their blood alcohol level. A camera system confirms someone else isn’t blowing into the system.

The technology is cumbersome and costly, said Carla Bailo, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research. The challenge is to come up with something easier to use and more affordable if it’s to be installed on millions of new vehicles each year.

“I don’t think that will be as easy as people might think,” Bailo told NBC News.

Nissan, for one, is working on a system that would use several different methods to see if an impaired driver is behind the wheel. Multiple sensors detect alcohol in cabin air. A camera atop the instrument cluster looks for facial cues signaling the driver is inebriated, and the vehicle itself looks for driving patterns suggesting an impaired driver.

But one concern is that the system could be triggered by drunk passengers, even with a sober, designated driver.

The federal government is funding research through the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety program. Several possible solutions are being studied, including one similar to a Breathalyzer. It would measure alcohol in the air around the driver, however, rather than requiring a motorist to blow into a tube every time they want start their vehicle. Like Nissan’s system, the challenge is to avoid false positives from an inebriated passenger.

A second system measures blood alcohol content in the body’s capillaries by shining a light on a driver’s finger. It could be built into a vehicle’s start button or steering wheel.

Drunk driving is estimated to have an annual societal cost of at least $210 billion.

But the NHTSA has warned that any alcohol monitoring system will have to be “seamless, accurate and precise, and unobtrusive to the sober driver.” The agency wants to avoid the repeat of the seatbelt interlock fiasco of the mid-1970s. The system was designed to prevent a vehicle from being started if occupants weren’t buckled up. But it was prone to malfunctions, leaving drivers stranded.

A drunk driving monitor “could be put in,” said CAR’s Bailo, but she warned that “it’s going to be expensive and will have to be especially effective because “people will try to cheat.”

Still, proponents contend it’s worth the cost. A 2010 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated drunk driving has an annual societal cost of $210 billion.

“The auto industry has long been committed to supporting public and private efforts to address this tragic threat to road safety,” John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an auto industry consortium, said in a statement sent to NBC News. “This legislation furthers the possibility for advanced technologies to help address the risk of impaired driving.

Beyond dealing with drunk drivers, the 2,702-page Senate proposal would require a number of other safety measures. Lawmakers would require auto manufacturers to install rear seat reminders that would alert parents and care givers if a child were inadvertently left in the back seat. That has been blamed for an average of 38 deaths a year since the late 1980s, with the number spiking to 53 in 2018.

While the decision to include the hot car issue in the bill won praise, some experts questioned why lawmakers didn’t press further. In April, the Federal Communications Commission approved requests from Tesla, as well as five automotive suppliers, to develop radar-based systems that could detect children or pets left in the back seat and then send an alert.

The infrastructure bill also would require collision detection technology that can apply the brakes automatically, should a motorist fail to respond in a timely manner. Almost all automakers agreed to introduce such technology over the next several years on most of their products as part of a voluntary plan announced during the final weeks of the Obama administration. The infrastructure bill would codify this — and cover all passenger vehicles sold in the U.S.