It’s Labor Day weekend in the U.S. and the National Safety Council (NSC) has forecast that approximately 400 deaths will occur on the nation’s highways. This death toll is about on par with past Labor Day weekends, with no big increase or reduction anticipated.
This routine slaughter is greeted by most observers with a yawn, but in the context of a 7.2% jump in annual highway fatalities last year and a subsequent 9% increase in fatalities forecast by the NSC for the first half of 2016, the U.S. is facing the prospect of 40,000 fatalities in 2016. The last time 40,000 lives were lost in a year on U.S. highways was 2007.
Having personally seen the aftermath of two crashes while driving in the Washington, DC, area over the past couple days the prospect appears very real. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is so concerned as to have suddenly opened up access to its crash databases just last week for individuals and organizations to pore over and pitch in to the effort to find an immediate solution to the scourge.
Most crash mitigation and fatality reduction strategies boil down to saving a couple hundred lives here or there. Whether considering the soon-to-be-implemented back-up camera mandate or recommending the adoption of automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, blind spot detection a la the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there are few good options for immediately curtailing crashes.
Driver distraction – mainly in the form of texting while driving – has garnered a substantial amount of attention in the press. NHTSA even claims that distracted drivers are responsible for 10% of all highway fatalities in the U.S. But mitigating driver distraction remains an elusive challenge in spite of a wide range of laws and enforcement efforts across the U.S. – and around the world.
There is one solution that has gotten little attention of late but which promises to immediately reduce the rising body count: Alcohol Detection Systems.
Nearly half of all fatal crashes during Labor Day weekend are ultimately attributable to alcohol consumption. Globally, alcohol consumption is blamed for 500,000 of the 1.25M annual highway fatalities.
Since 2011, NHTSA has been studying the development and implementation of touch- and breath-based alcohol detection systems as standard features in cars. The agency’s public statements describe the research as setting the stage for making such systems available as a vehicle option – but standard implementation in the form of a mandate or voluntary fitment by auto makers is on the table in view of the carnage attributed to drunk drivers.
The breath-based system is under development by Autoliv while Takata has partnered with TruTouch to work on the touch-based system. (The Autoliv system is designed to only capture the driver’s breath. The TruTouch system can be mounted on the engine start button, gear shift or steering wheel.) The agency and cooperating car companies (which comprise a long list including most car makers) are seeking a system capable of delivering an inobtrusive, accurate and swift (sub-second) reading of driver blood-alcohol level prior to enabling operation of the motor vehicle.
Among the considerations for NHTSA, Autoliv, Takata and car maker partners are the societal impacts and implications of such a standard system. The concept is hard to argue against – unless you believe drunk drivers have a right to drive. At the same time, it seems to put the freedom to drive at will in question.
A single vehicle is currently on the road in the U.S. with some somewhat unwieldy test equipment installed. But as this technological solution gets closer to market the voices of safety advocates and the insurance industry can be expected to rise in support of proceeding directly to a standard. With highway fatalities on a trajectory to hit a nine-year high, NHTSA will be looking closer than ever before at solutions capable of delivering an immediate reduction in highway fatalities.
The stubbornly high rate of crashes and fatalities related to drunk driving suggest that nothing less than a mandate will curb this very low tech problem. Ten thousand fatalities every year is simply too many too ignore.