Big Brother: Your Newest Car Passenger

As the new infrastructure bill makes its way out of the Senate and is prepared to go to the House of Representatives, tucked inside are two little pieces of legislation that are not well known: The RIDE Act and HALT Act. Hailed by the president of Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as a, “technological vaccine” to drunk driving, these two pieces of legislation order the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

To require the Secretary of Transportation, acting through the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to prescribe a Federal motor vehicle safety standard for advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology, and for other purposes.

The HALT and RIDE act would require NHTSA in the next three to five years to:

  1. Identify technology to detect drunk and impaired driving
  2. Set minimum standards for that technology
  3. Promulgate rules to have it installed in new vehicles

This technology has been in development for some time. Several car manufacturers have different iterations on it. Now, the technology would be required baseline in new cars, similar to seat belts. In this article we’re going to be discussing the two pieces of legislation, what those technologies look like, and finally point out a large amount of questions that are still unanswered and might give everybody pause until we have more information.

Halt And Ride Act Of 2021

The HALT and RIDE acts are pieces of bipartisan legislation that have been included into the infrastructure bill that is making its way through Congress right now. The RIDE act in the Senate was introduced by Sen. Ben Lujan (D-NM) and co-sponsored by Sens Rick Scott (R-FL), Gary Peters (D-MI) and Shelley Moore (R-WV). The HALT act was introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI-12) and cosponsored by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA-32). To date, they are both still in committee.

The reasons behind such legislation are two-fold: statistics concerning drunk driving and public support. To the former:

  • NHTSA has released statistics that show in 2020, despite driving less, traffic fatalities have increased. Within that subset, impaired driving rose significantly.
  • The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also predicted that alcohol-detection systems could prevent up to one-third of traffic related deaths, or roughly 9,400 people per year.
  • NHTSA has also stated that impaired and drunk driving are costing the United States Economy roughly $69 billion a year in 2010.

Concerning public support, MADD teamed up with Ipsos to conduct a survey concerning impaired driving technology. That survey found:

  • 3 of 4 people (77%) support Congressional action to require impaired driving detection technology in all new vehicles;
  • 8 of 10 people (83%) believe that new auto safety features should be standard in all cars
  • 9 of 10 people (89%) say it’s a good or very good idea to have technology that is integrated into a car’s electronics to prevent drunk driving.

A combination of an especially fatal year in traffic combined with broad public support and bipartisan support has created a perfect storm for these pieces of legislation to pass.

Impaired Driving Technology: How It Would Work

As early as 2007 car manufacturers have been developing anti-impaired and drunk driving technology. The Japanese car manufacturers were the first, facing public outcry over several high profile DUIs resulting in death for entire families in Japan. Other manufacturers followed suit, and there are currently several variations on the technology. Here are a few:

  • Toyota: In 2007, Toyota stated they were developing technology that would not allow a car to be started if there was too much alcohol measured in the sweat on people’s palms. The sweat sensors would be on the driving wheel. Additionally, they would be monitoring a driver’s pupils and abnormal steering that would bring the car to a stop if it was determined the individual was impaired.
  • Volvo: Volvo has been developing a system to place in its cars that monitor for lack of steering input, drivers detected to have their eyes closed or off the road, as well as extreme weaving or excessively slow reaction times. The car would respond by slowing the speed of the car, notifying Volvo on Call assistance, and actively slowing down and safely parking the car.
  • Nissan: Nissan intends to install alcohol odor sensors. One would be installed on the transmission shift knob and measure alcohol driver’s palms. Other sensors would be on the driver and passenger seats to detect alcohol in the air of the cabin. Detection would result in a notification on the navigation sensor. This is all in conjunction with cameras and driver monitoring software.

Aside from the major car manufacturers, there is also Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (dadss). Sponsored by every major car manufacturer, they are developing an anti-drunk driving system that measures the alcohol in the breath and via touch on the steering wheel or ignition starter.

The timelines for these technologies are a little murky. Volvo stated they expect their cars to all have the equipment installed in the early 2020s. So far It has not been seen. Dadss stated they expect their first commercial vehicle with the equipment will be out of the lab later this year (2021).

Safety Or Liberty

This new technology is presented as life-saving, cost-saving, and overall a great idea. Polling at a very high approval rating, it seems like the smart choice. And that is exactly how they want it marketed. However, there are some serious concerns that are not even discussed when looking at this technology. A few:

  • Duty to Report: If your car stops you from driving because you are under the influence, will the car be required to report this to law enforcement? Will car manufacturers take it upon themselves to report this information? Is NHTSA going to promulgate such a rule that requires the report to officers? None of this is discussed or even touched on. It’s entirely possible that getting into your car at or around .08 and turning it on will result in your car locking you out and police en route to your location.
  • Data Storage: These cars are going to be monitoring everybody all the time. That data is no doubt going to be stored somewhere. Will it be stored on the car in the onboard computer, or will it be sent somewhere else? Who is going to have access to that data? Will there be requirements to keep that data? We don’t know what the intentions are, but several of these systems are measuring biometric data. Fingerprinting, breath, etc. That information is fairly sensitive, and most people would not like for several companies to have it.
  • Warrants: What will the car manufacturer’s’ position be on warrants? If you are accused of driving under the influence, will your car manufacturer require that the information that led to the car being stopped be turned over to law enforcement? It’s entirely possible that your car will be the number one witness at a DUI trial where you might not have even been over .08 (impairment theory).
  • Override: Is it possible to override the technology? What happens to those with disabilities and other individuals who might have conditions that also trigger the technology? Will there be thresholds? If hand sanitizer is used, could this trigger the sensor? What about an individual who drank one glass of wine, but suffers from indigestion and burps. Will this shut the car down? There is constant calibration necessary for measuring Blood Alcohol Content for it to be valid. It’s highly likely these detection services will not have that level of calibration and care that an Intoxilyzer or other machines will.

None of these questions are being addressed or even asked. We’re being sold on this miracle, “…technological vaccine” for drunk driving. However, details on implementation, privacy, and rights is severely lacking. Without that transparency this type of technology could be one more assault on our civil liberties.


H.R. 4354 – HALT Act

S. 1331 – RIDE Act of 2021

2020 Fatality Data Show Increased Traffic Fatalities During Pandemic

Alcohol-detection systems could prevent more than a fourth of U.S. road fatalities

MADD/Ipsos Poll: Consumers Support Drunk Driving Prevention Systems in Cars

Toyota Creating Alcohol Detection System

Volvo Cars to deploy in-car cameras and intervention against intoxication, distraction

Drunk-driving Prevention Concept Car