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We’re So Close to Having Cars That You Can’t Drive Drunk

A detail of a sensor on the steering wheel column of a test vehicle for developing technology to prevent people from driving while drunk. Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe via Getty Images

Tucked into last year’s mammoth Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is an unassuming little provision to require alcohol-detection technology on all new passenger vehicles by 2024. One of the most promising of the available interventions uses an infrared light, installed on a steering wheel or push-button ignition, to detect alcohol in the bloodstream through a driver’s fingertips. If the blood-alcohol concentration is over .08 percent, the car won’t start. Simple.

It’s not any kind of silver bullet. People tend to hold on to their cars for a long time, so even with a 2024 start date, these so-called Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety systems wouldn’t reach anything like widespread use for quite a while. But it’s still such a low-hanging — and potentially lifesaving — requirement that there’s no reason not to deploy it immediately.

Which is why it seems odd that three Republican senators are planning to introduce legislation to repeal it. The text of the bill hasn’t been released yet, but S.4647, sponsored by South Dakota’s Mike Rounds, is currently named: “A bill to amend the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to repeal a provision relating to an advanced impaired driving technology motor vehicle safety standard, and for other purposes.” (“Nah, Just Let People Drive Drunk Instead” might be shorter.)

As safety advocate and author Jessie Singer describes in her book There Are No Accidents, tech like what’s proposed in the new law could help us avoid a lot of deaths, both behind the wheel and in the street. Estimates suggest that the U.S. could save 9,000 people each year, about a quarter of the total annual traffic fatalities. (Like total traffic fatalities, those numbers have been significantly higher during the pandemic, with 11,654 people killed in crashes involving drunk drivers in 2020.) And, as Singer also notes, why not pair these kinds of interventions with investments in more affordable, reliable transit options like buses, trains, and taxis — all operating after last call?

Rounds, along with co-sponsors Mike Braun from Indiana and John Cornyn from Texas, have yet to comment on their plan to oppose the change, but surely it has something to do with preserving the uniquely American freedom to get tanked, slide behind the wheel of an SUV, and mow down a few pedestrians.

We’re So Close to Having Cars That You Can’t Drive Drunk