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Editorial: Technology a chance to put the brakes on needless traffic deaths

Last weekend was not a safe time to be on Albuquerque’s interstates, with two wrong-way drivers causing two fatal crashes within 24 hours. But then, it’s rarely a safe time to be on N.M. roads.

A car headed the wrong way on Interstate 40 early Sunday struck an SUV and then smashed into a tractor-trailer near San Mateo, killing the wrong-way driver. Another wrong-way driver caused a head-on crash on I-25 early Saturday that left two people dead. Deputies said an off-duty Cuba Police Department officer was driving north on southbound I-25 when his car ran into an SUV, killing two men in the SUV and seriously injuring its driver.

Those fatalities follow a single-car crash April 1 near the Big I that killed a 7-year-old girl and a 2-month-old boy. Two 23-year-old mothers who had been drinking wrangled over whether it was safe to drive. Each lost a child when the car went airborne and crashed into a concrete barrier. And April 29, a California man led deputies on a high-speed chase on N.M. 14, crashing into multiple vehicles. It started after a woman reported an SUV ramming into her car.

These cases will work their way through the court and insurance systems. But what if victims didn’t have to try to be made whole because such accidents were prevented?

Believe it – technology is within reach that can prevent similar mayhem. In fact, it’s already in many vehicles.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, and Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, are co-sponsoring legislation that would utilize a variety of drowsy/drunken/reckless driving prevention systems – including driver monitoring, lane assist and automatic braking – to prevent a vehicle from veering out of lane, hitting an object or even moving. Ken Snyder, executive director of Utah’s Shingo Institute, says the software in new vehicles would require a tweak at little or no cost.

The Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone (RIDE) Act co-sponsored by Luján and Scott, and a similar measure in the U.S. House called the HALT Act, would give the U.S. Department of Transportation authority to make distracted, impaired or fatigued driving detection technology mandatory in new vehicles. Volvo and Toyota already have in-vehicle systems that can detect erratic driving and/or alcohol impairment and bring a vehicle to a stop. Nissan’s system triggers a voice alert and tightens the seat belt to get the driver’s attention.

More than 10,000 people a year are routinely killed in the U.S. in alcohol-related crashes. The CDC says 1,254 people were killed in New Mexico in alcohol-related crashes between 2003 and 2012. And New Mexico ranks as the worst state in the nation for pedestrian fatalities, with 30 people struck and killed by vehicles in the Albuquerque area last year, 42 in 2019, and 35 in 2018.

“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.”

Technology is the best hope we’ve seen to reduce drunken driving and the related carnage on our roads. Yes, the devil is again in the details, and driver monitoring does present some privacy concerns. But merely being on public roads requires the concession of some privacy. Congress should pass the RIDE/HALT acts,which have the potential of being technological game-changers and a dramatic leap forward in making our roads a safer place to be.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.