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UpFront: Can technology run DWI off roads?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “I still see headlights in my nightmares.”

It’s a recollection shared by too many New Mexicans, those who have survived a crash with a drunken driver. Sen. Ben Ray Luján revealed last week that he is one of them.

In a Zoom meeting focused on the Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone (RIDE) Act, which he is co-sponsoring with Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, Luján recalled that “back in the summer of 1992, I was less than about half a mile away from home, and I saw two headlights coming right at me. No time to react. And a drunk driver hit me head-on. … That accident and that head-on collision forever changed my life.”

His RIDE Act (he picked up the mantle from retired Sen. Tom Udall), like the HALT Act in the House sponsored by Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., “would involve a variety of drunk driving prevention systems, including driver monitoring, which can detect signs of distracted, impaired or fatigued driving, and alcohol detection, which uses sensors to determine that a driver is under the influence of alcohol, and then prevent the vehicle from moving,” according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Ben Ray Luján

Luján says, “The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety found that more than 9,400 drunk driving deaths could be prevented each year if drunk-driving prevention technology is made standard on every new vehicle, and that’s exactly what the RIDE Act sets out to do.”

Scott, who said he has lost two friends to a crash with a drunken driver, emphasized, “This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is an American issue.”

Asked about the cost and what the systems would look like (does every car have a cumbersome ignition interlock?), Ken Snyder, executive director of Utah’s cutting-edge research Shingo Institute, said it would cost little to nothing and wouldn’t be visible because it primarily involves what amount to software tweaks in newer vehicles that can identify erratic driving and get the vehicle off the road.

He says there are at least 241 possible systems, including lane detection and automatic braking, that can play a role. The RIDE and HALT Acts would give the Department of Transportation rule-making authority to make such detection mandatory in new vehicles.

According to fact sheets that were part of the presentation, Volvo, Nissan and Toyota already have systems that monitor erratic driving and/or alcohol impairment:

⋄ Volvo has in-car sensors and cameras that monitor for signs of intoxication and distraction, from a lack of active steering to closed eyes, then intervene to prevent crashes if the driver does not respond to alerts – limiting speed, alerting the on-board assistance service or ultimately taking control of the vehicle and bringing it to a safe stop.

• Nissan has “alcohol odor sensors, facial monitoring and vehicle operational behavior to detect driver impairment.” The odor sensors are in the transmission shift knob and seats, the facial monitoring in the instrument panel to look for drowsiness via eye blinks, and the operational behavior monitoring in the software that checks if a driver maintains a lane. Each triggers a voice alert and tightening of the seat belt to get the driver’s attention.

• Toyota has an “alcohol detection system … that … automatically shuts the vehicle down if sensors pick up signs of excessive alcohol consumption.” The “sweat sensors in the driving wheel detect high levels of alcohol in the driver’s bloodstream.” Sensors can also detect “abnormal steering, or if a special camera shows that the driver’s pupils are not in focus. Then the car is slowed to a halt.”

“This technology already exists,” Luján says. “If you can have a conversation about self-driving, autonomous vehicles, you can absolutely implement technology that is going to save people’s lives. There shouldn’t be a question about this.

“I got lucky,” the senator says. “My heart breaks for the families who weren’t as fortunate. Drunk driving has brought pain into the homes of too many New Mexicans. People across America mourn the loss of loved ones due to a drunk driving accident. … But Congress can take action; we can do something.”

In the first three months of 2021, there have been 17 deaths on New Mexico roads involving DWI. There were 34 last year, 40 in 2019. That does not include the many drunken-driving crashes that have left people with debilitating injuries, or those who, like our senator, were “lucky” to walk away with just nightmares.

“By deploying cutting-edge alcohol detection technologies and requiring auto manufacturers to implement this technology in new car models, the RIDE Act will help keep our roads safe and prevent needless deaths.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or dwestphal@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.


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