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Out of Michigan family's tragic death, new policy emerges to end drunken driving

Washington — Early in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 6, 2019, Rana Abbas Taylor's world collapsed. 

Miles from her Northville home, Rana's sister, Rima, was driving through Kentucky on her way back from a family vacation in Florida with husband Issam and their three children, Ali, Isabelle and Giselle. 

At 2:30 a.m., a man driving the wrong way on the highway collided with the family's SUV, instantly killing all five. His blood alcohol concentration was nearly four times the legal limit. 

"In the blink of an eye, I lost nearly my entire family," Abbas Taylor said. "For a long period, I was in a state of shock. I don't think I even knew or cared what came next."

But Abbas Taylor, a longtime community advocate, soon found something to fight for in a bill authored by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, that would require all new passenger vehicles be built with technology aimed at preventing drunken driving.

And after more than two years pushing Congress alongside Mothers Against Drunk Driving, President Joe Biden signed that bill into law as a part of the recently approved $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.

When Abbas Taylor found out the bill named in honor of her family would become law, she "just fell apart," she said. "For me, it was a realization that no matter what happens from this point on, their legacy gets to live on forever."

The new policy comes at a time when traffic deaths on U.S. highways are soaring to a level Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called "a crisis." In the first six months of 2021, traffic deaths jumped 18.4% over the same time last year — the biggest increase in fatalities over that time frame in 15 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

Many of those deaths were due to impaired driving. Around 28 people die from drunken driving crashes every day in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates around 9,000 lives could be saved annually from drunken-driving prevention technology.

The requirement could go into effect as early as 2026 and allows time for the Department of Transportation and the industry to determine the best method to comply. Experts say multiple technology options exist that can help stop drunken drivers, but add it remains to be seen which will be used — and what other innovation they might enable.

"That piece of the law — at least in (the auto) world — was the most interesting and most impactful thing in the law that nobody talked about really before it was passed," said Mike Ramsey, an automotive analyst at Gartner Inc. "It has some big implications because it's not totally clear how we're going to achieve this."

Pathways forward

For Dingell, the idea came at the Abbas family funeral in Dearborn. Two of the children's friends approached her at the service and asked why lawmakers hadn't yet required technology to stop this from happening.

"It really bothered me," she said. So Dingell called Ford Motor Co. asked for their help putting together a plan to change things: "We have got to do something about drunk driving, and you've got to help me."

Automakers made the case that there are multiple ways to accomplish the goal, so Dingell and her allies in Congress made the policy technology-neutral, she said. U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, pushed for similar legislation in the Senate. 

The law outlines two systems that could comply with its directive: One that would passively monitor driver performance to determine whether they're impaired, one that would detect the driver's blood alcohol concentration, or a combination of both. 

Either way, the technology should be capable of preventing or limiting the car's operation if the driver is determined to be drunk. 

“We appreciate the efforts of congressional leaders and other stakeholders to advance a legislative approach that provides NHTSA the ability to review all potential technologies as options for federal regulation and, consistent with the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, to make a well-informed decision as to whether any specific technologies meet the standard for consumer vehicles," said John Bozzella, CEO of industry trade group Alliance for Automotive Innovation, in a statement. 

A common way to measure drivers' blood alcohol is an ignition interlock device, required in Michigan and in most other states for DUI offenders who have been convicted of driving with high BAC levels. But multiple experts said mandated use of that system would get pushback from consumers.

"Most people would be very, very opposed to having to blow into a breathalyzer every time they get in their car," said Sam Abuelsamid, a principal research analyst with Guidehouse Insights.

One option in the works for years is the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), which is being researched through a collaboration between the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and NHTSA.

The program is developing both a breath system and a touch system that could be used in passenger cars. The breath system passively measures alcohol as drivers breathe normally through sensors in the driver-side door or steering wheel, and the touch system measures blood alcohol levels by running an infrared light into the driver's finger or palm through the start button or steering wheel. 

But researchers still need to make the technology smaller, more cost-effective and more sensitive to the amount of alcohol in people's breath, said Robert Strassburger, CEO of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety. He added the technology is on track to be complete in time for the Department of Transportation's rulemaking. 

"It's very encouraging and very motivating to those of us that are developing the technology to have the continued endorsement and support of policymakers for what we're doing," Strassburger said of the new law.

Abuelsamid argued infrared driver monitoring cameras are the most likely solution, such as those already in some Ford and GM vehicles used to make sure drivers using hands-free technology are paying attention.

"The beauty of that is because it's looking for drivers head pose and eyes that can be utilized for detecting distracted driving and drunk driving," said Abuelsamid, adding automakers may be less likely to push back because they are planning to put it in new cars anyway. 

It's unclear what the cost of the new policy will be for automakers, according to Dingell's office.

In response to requests for interviews about how their existing driver monitoring technology could be used to comply with the new law, a spokesperson for GM pointed The Detroit News to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.  

Scott Schmidt, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation's vice president for safety policy, wrote a letter to NHTSA in January supporting the DADSS system over driver monitoring systems for drunken driving intervention.

Ramsey, the analyst with Gartner, said existing driver monitoring systems don't always function perfectly, which may raise the question of how to approach false positives in which the car thinks a driver is impaired but they actually aren't. Both he and Strassburger said the technology also struggles to detect high-functioning alcoholics who may appear to drive normally but couldn't respond to unexpected obstacles on the road like a sober driver.

Ramsey said mandating the technology is likely to lead the way for other kinds of innovation, as automakers seek to make the most of new sensors and measuring devices. 

"Things like this will probably cause an explosion of other weird and interesting capabilities in a car," Ramsey said. Both he and Abuelsamid noted the technology may be used to monitor and send out alerts for other kinds of impairment, such as a heart attack, strokes and other health issues behind the wheel. 

"It's almost certain that the car companies will attempt to leverage whatever technology they're putting in there to do other things that could actually be monetized as opposed to just a requirement," Ramsey said.

The law allows the safety rulemaking process to be extended with regular reports to Congress explaining the delay. But Dingell said she's confident the Department of Transportation will find existing technology that works and implement it — hopefully as soon as possible.

The promise of that change is comfort for Abbas Taylor in a journey sparked by unimaginable tragedy. 

"To know that we were a part of something that is going to save thousands upon thousands of lives a year — it's like being part of something huge," she said. "Lives will be saved, and that is what matters most. And I think for any family out there, there is nothing more critical and more important or valuable than that."

Twitter: @rbeggin