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DWI Laws' Next Frontier is Almost Here, Tucked Into Federal Law

Next year, the U.S. Department of Transportation will issue a rule requiring all new passenger cars to be equipped by 2026 with technology that disables the vehicle if the driver's blood-alcohol level exceeds the legal limit. Tucked inside the massive federal infrastructure bill signed into law last year, that provision has received little attention but stands to create as much or more of a stir as previous legal changes cracking down on driving while intoxicated and requiring seat belts, Mother Jones reports. Advocates for stricter enforcement of DWI laws couldn't be happier. “It’s been a long, long slog of trying to identify new ways of making sure that people don’t make this illegal decision,” Stephanie Manning, chief government affairs officer at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says. “We think that this is, in fact, what will eliminate drunk driving once and for all.” But implementation won’t be simple, as technological hurdles, privacy concerns and bureaucratic challenges await.


After seat belts were mandated for new cars in 1968, use was so low that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that cars manufactured in the 1974 model year be equipped with seat belt interlocks that would prevent a car from starting if the front seat belts weren’t buckled. Consumers were outraged, and Congress quickly eliminated the requirement. Even though seat belt usage could have become nearly universal in the 1970s, its use only surpassed 90 percent nationwide in 2016, according to NHTSA. Reducing drunk driving has been a similarly gradual process, since the birth of MADD in 1980. The laws that eventually passed contributed to a steep drop in drunk driving fatalities, from roughly 28,000 nationwide in 1980 to about 10,000 in 2010. Since then, the number of people killed in drunk driving crashes in the U.S. has plateaued, with an uptick in 2020. One big hurdle to clear before the new regulation takes hold is technological, despite years of testing and limited use of such devices for people convicted of DWI. “One of the things that makes the anti-drunk driving mandate interesting is that currently, that technology is just not out there,” said John Mohr, a historian of technology at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “There are various theories about current technologies that could be adapted for that purpose, but the actual direct use of them to prevent drunk driving is not available to consumers yet.” Then there are privacy challenges. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, points out that anti-drunk driving systems could collect myriad information about people’s bodies, in addition to data that cars already track, such as drivers’ location history and phone logs. “Are [drivers] smoking? Are they kissing somebody while they’re parked? Are they eating while they’re driving? The list goes on and on," Stanley said. “A privacy-protecting version of this technology is not going to happen by itself. It’s going to have to result from vigilance by advocates, including advocates for safer roads who don’t really have an interest in creating new vectors for spying on people in their cars.”

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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