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Opinion: Impaired-Driving Technology Worth Discussing

An infrastructure bill provision that calls for cameras or sensors inside our cars to constantly monitor our eyes, head bobs and more does stand to bolster safety while at the same time raising privacy concerns.

drunken driving
(TNS) — It's one of the far-too-many provisions in the federal infrastructure bill that isn't really infrastructure. Not directly. And its calls for cameras or sensors inside our cars to constantly monitor our eyes, head bobs, and more does smack uncomfortably of Big Brother government control.

But consider the upside of making drunk driving-prevention technology standard equipment in all new vehicles. We could save more than 10,000 lives and prevent more than 300,000 injuries that occur now, every year, as a result of alcohol-related collisions. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drunk driving accounts for one death every 52 minutes.

"Advanced impaired driving technology," as the in-our-vehicles gadgetry is referred to in the infrastructure bill that passed the U.S. Senate this week, would make it difficult, if not impossible, to operate a motor vehicle after having too much to drink.

"Too many families across America have felt the pain of losing a loved one from drunk and impaired driving crashes. After years of advocacy from survivors and victims' families, the Senate took action to help end drunk and impaired driving," U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D- New Mexico, said in a statement released this week by MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "As a victim and survivor of a drunk driving crash, I know how important this legislation is for those like me who live to tell the story and the thousands every year who can't. I'll continue fighting to get this signed into law."

The new equipment could include cameras or other sensors to monitor drivers' eyes, focus, and head movements; exterior sensors to detect when a vehicle drifts out of its lane; a light built into a vehicle's start button or steering wheel that would measure the blood-alcohol content in a driver's capillaries; and breathalyzer-like monitors not unlike the gadgets drivers with drunk-driving convictions are sometimes made to use now before being able to turn on their vehicles.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act still needs to pass the U.S. House and then be signed into law by President Joe Biden before any new equipment is installed in any new vehicle. There's optimism for that final passage, however. This week's Senate vote included bipartisan support. And the House passed a similar bill to end drunk driving on July 1 that also enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans.

If the infrastructure bill becomes law, the U.S. Department of Transportation would have three years to select manufacturers to develop the alcohol-monitoring technology, including provisions to ensure accuracy and effectiveness. Automakers then would have another two years to begin installing the equipment on new vehicles.

If the DOT officials can't agree on specifics or what technology to use within 10 years, the whole thing can be scrapped, according to the legislation. "In other words," as Time magazine reported this month, " Congress is giving the DOT an off-ramp should automakers decide the systems are simply unworkable or too costly."

Whatever the costs to car manufacturers, be certain they'll be passed onto us car-buying consumers. Proponents argue that whatever that additional cost, it pales in comparison to the societal cost of drunk driving, which was recently estimated at $132 billion annually in the U.S. by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

While the safer-highways upside is undeniable, this new provision does promise to add to the sticker shock of car-buying as well as "another layer of government checks on daily life," as the Time article stated.

In exchange, though, as the story also read, "Americans receive some measure of assurance that those sharing the road aren't drunk. ... (It's a) major public-health move that basically says lawmakers are fine paying for the new roadways, but in exchange they want some safeguards that those new lanes won't be packed with loaded drivers."

The devil, no doubt, will be in the costs, whether motorists can cheat the technology, whether Americans will stand for the heavy-handedness, and other details. But saving lives and preventing injuries makes the provision, buried in the infrastructure bill, worth an open discussion.

© 2021 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.