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California Crash Kills 9, Prompts Federal Agency Push for Drunk Driver Detectors on All New Cars


On New Year’s Day, 2021, a fatal car crash killed nine people, including seven children. Investigation into this crash has been in progress ever since. As of September 20th, 2022, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has used the investigation results as grounds to call for alcohol impairment detection systems as a standard feature of all new vehicles sold in the US. 

This announcement comes after details of the tragic accident were released to the public. According to the NTSB’s report, the accident was caused by a drunk driver. The driver was significantly impaired, with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of more than double the legal limit of 0.08. He was driving at more than 98 mph along State Route 33 at the time of the incident. 

The impact occurred after the driver accidentally ran off the road onto the right shoulder. He then overcorrected and crossed the center line. This carried his SUV directly into the path of an oncoming pickup truck, which held an adult driver and seven children between the ages of 6 and 15. The vehicles collided head-on. When emergency services arrived at the scene, the cars were reportedly “fully engulfed” in flames. There were no survivors.

This accident is just one of thousands of tragedies caused yearly by drunk and otherwise impaired drivers. The NTSB has used it as an explicit example of how lives could be saved by adding intoxication identification technology to all vehicles. The agency states that modern technology could have prevented the crash by barring the intoxicated driver from starting his car in the first place. To understand how the NTSB’s recommendations may impact road safety, let’s examine the risks of drunk driving and what the NTSB has requested. 

The Risks of Drunk Driving

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 32 people die daily from drunk driving. These accidents are becoming more common, with overall deaths increasing to 11,654 in 2020. That’s a 14% increase compared to 2019. Overall, intoxicated drivers are involved in about 30% of all traffic fatalities in the US annually. 

Only drivers above the 0.08 BAC legal limit were considered in the NHTSA’s statistics. However, lower BAC levels can still affect reaction times and coordination, and may be responsible for a significant fraction of other accidents. The NHTSA states that a BAC of 0.05 can reduce your ability to steer or respond to emergencies, and a 0.02 BAC can make it harder to track moving objects or multitask well enough to react to distractions while driving. It’s always safest to wait until your BAC has returned to zero before driving. 

Alcohol isn’t the only substance that can impair drivers, either. Both legal and illegal substances can affect your ability to drive safely. For instance, cannabis, opioids, and cold and allergy medications can make drivers drowsy and significantly reduce coordination and reaction times. Alternately, amphetamines can increase reckless behavior and aggression in drivers. 

These substances don’t have legal limits, but they still affect how you drive. The NHTSA makes the situation crystal clear when it states, “Impaired drivers can’t accurately assess their own impairment – which is why no one should drive after using any impairing substances. Remember: If you feel different, you drive different.”

Changes Requested by the NTSB

The NTSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating the most severe transportation accidents nationwide. Its purpose is to determine the cause of accidents and identify safety recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future. These recommendations are given to the NHTSA, which is responsible for setting and enforcing nationwide safety performance standards for vehicles of all types. The NHTSA can implement these recommendations, alter them, or dismiss them, based on other research and traffic and consumer safety concerns.

After the New Year’s Day accident, the NTSB has called for two specific changes to vehicle safety requirements. First, it has requested that all new vehicles be produced with “passive vehicle-integrated alcohol impairment detection systems, advanced driver monitoring systems or a combination of the two.” These systems would be designed to detect driver alcohol intoxication and limit what intoxicated drivers can do with the vehicle. 

Second, the agency reiterated its request that the NHTSA incentivize car makers to add speed adaptation systems. These systems would monitor vehicle speed and adjust it for road and weather conditions. This is intended to reduce the likelihood of speed-related crashes regardless of drivers’ intoxication levels. 

In addition, the NTSB maintains its recommendations to reduce the legal BAC limit to 0.05 and to develop standard practices for drug toxicology testing for non-alcohol substances. 

Just because the NTSB has called for these changes does not mean the NHTSA will require them immediately. The NTSB is only responsible for making recommendations, not developing policies and regulations. The NHTSA will need time to respond to the suggestions, determine whether they are feasible, then create and approve new rules. As such, it is unlikely that manufacturers will be required to implement these intoxication and speed detection systems for several years. Still, this is a sign that federal regulators may soon make car manufacturers take responsibility for preventing drunk driving, speeding, and other safety risks. This would be a significant step forward for traffic safety and reduce the risk of car accidents nationally. 

Get Legal Help After Drunk Driving Accidents 

While most drunk driving accidents aren’t as dramatic as the New Year’s Day crash, these incidents are never good. Regulations may take a long time to catch up to the NTSB’s recommendations. In the meantime, if you have been injured or lost a loved one because of a drunk driver, you deserve expert legal assistance. 

At the Ellis Helm, APC, our experienced car accident attorneys are available to help you hold drunk drivers accountable for their actions. Reach out today to discuss your case. During your consultation, we will help you determine if you have a viable personal injury or wrongful death claim and begin the process of building your case. We will fight on your behalf for just compensation for your losses, so you can return to your normal life as quickly as possible.