Our view: Make highway fatalities a victim of technology

No matter how hard New Mexicans battle, the scourge of drunken driving resists defeat.

The Legislature passes get-tough laws. Marketing campaigns highlight the dangers of driving after taking a drink. Jail sentences are enhanced and awareness is raised, and, still, people are killed by other drivers who don’t mind getting behind the wheel drunk.

So far this year, nearly 100 people have died on New Mexico roads in drunken-driving accidents. Thursday, Dec. 3, was marked as the Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s first National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Drunk and Drugged Driving. Across the United States, a third of highway fatalities are attributed to impaired driving, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That added up to 10,000 deaths in 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Placing the day of remembrance in December, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, makes sense considering that there is a spike in drunken-driving accidents over the holidays. College students home for the semester break, Christmas parties and New Year’s Eve celebrations all combine to make drinking and driving more common.
While tougher sentences, better tracking of repeat offenders and, perhaps most importantly, offering treatment to alcoholics all matter in battling drunken driving, other avenues are opening up in our attempts to save lives.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D.-N.M., is using his clout in Congress to work on technological solutions — with a potential to save 59,000 lives over 15 years.

Called the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, the technology, once in place, could keep drunken drivers off the roads. For that to happen, Congress needs to appropriate money, and that’s where Udall’s positions on the Senate Appropriations Committee and Senate Commerce Committee, come in handy. The Commerce Committee oversees the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.

The Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, representing 17 automobile manufacturers, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are working together to develop alcohol-detection technologies that would stop drivers with a blood- alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher from starting a car. The idea is to have a voluntary, nonregulatory system in place to reduce drunken driving. More research is needed, but the first phase of analysis is done, focusing on whether a touch- or breath-based system would work best.
Each individual has to take responsibility — that’s the first and best way to combat drunken driving, by people deciding not to take a drink and get behind the wheel. But humans are fallible and they make mistakes. Technology can help correct human mistakes and stop people from killing others. Science can save lives — but only if Congress continues to fund this important research.