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New Car Tech Could Defeat Deadly Driving Hazards

NHTSA Plans Target Seatbelts, DUI, Distraction and Crashes

Are you ready for a car that won't start unless you're belted in? Or a vehicle that won't let you drive if your blood alcohol level is over the legal limit? How about a car that knows you're going to crash into the car in front of you and applies the brakes to prevent that from happening?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) intends to "aggressively" accelerate the introduction of three technologies into cars: seatbelt interlocks, driver alcohol-detection systems and forward collision avoidance and mitigation systems, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told Edmunds during an interview at the L.A. Auto Show in November. Strickland announced recently that he was stepping down as head of the agency. David Friedman, NHTSA's deputy administrator, will serve as administrator until a permanent replacement is named.

NHTSA is also researching a technological solution to the problem of cellphone-distracted driving. It could arrive in the form of an onboard system that would "interlock" the driver's phone, making it impossible for the driver to use it until he had paired it with the car's dashboard interface. Passengers would be free to use their phones as they wished.

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Technology Instead of Cajoling Drivers
Strickland, who has headed the agency since 2010, said that while the agency has seen gains in highway safety over the years, significantly reducing deaths and injuries on the road remains a top focus, and a hard-to-attain goal.

A number of efforts, including drunken-driving and seatbelt laws and public-awareness campaigns, have helped to bring down the number of annual fatalities, which peaked in 1972 at 54,589 and stood at 33,561 in 2012.

However, highway deaths actually increased slightly in 2012, up from 32,479 in 2011. This increase followed six consecutive years of declining fatalities, according to a November 2013 report from NHTSA.

Some stubborn culprits were responsible for deaths and injuries: Among fatally injured occupants of vehicles in 2012, 52 percent of those killed were not wearing seatbelts. More than 10,000 people were killed in drunk-driving crashes in 2012, an increase of 4.6 percent over 2011. DUI-related deaths accounted for 31 percent of all 2012 fatalities. Finally, driver error continues to be a factor in more than 90 percent of collisions, Strickland said.

Data like these are why NHTSA is supporting technologies to force drivers and passengers to belt up before they could start their cars and to prevent drivers from even being able to start the car if their blood-alcohol level exceeds the legal 0.08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit.

"You can't keep doing the same thing and expect a different result," Strickland said, explaining why the agency is pushing technology as the answer to drunken driving, driver-caused collisions and the failure to use seatbelts.

"We needed to make a real sea change in terms of how we get these three major risks addressed more quickly. Losing half the people in crashes to not wearing belts for 10 to 20 years? That's not a sustainable model. It has to change. Having a third of fatalities involving impaired driving? It has to change."

Seatbelt Interlocks — With a Difference
Reintroducing the idea of seatbelt interlock systems presents some risks for NHTSA, Strickland said. "There are a lot of people around here from the mid-'70s who remember the epic failure of seatbelt interlocks," he said.

NHTSA mandated interlocked seatbelts for front-seat occupants in all 1974 cars, and the law came down with just six months of lead time. The systems worked so poorly that seatbelt use actually declined for 1974 model-year cars. The decline was chalked up to mechanical issues with the belts and drivers' ability to learn how to defeat or work around the systems.

Strickland noted that not only was the law repealed, "but Congress forbade us from ever doing it again.

"We lost 40 years of opportunity to have people wearing belts" because of the failed effort, Strickland said. "I would estimate that there were hundreds of thousands of lives lost because of that."

The difference this time is that seatbelt interlock systems would be a voluntary program. The systems are supported by some manufacturers, including BMW. That carmaker sought permission to implement the system earlier this year and was turned down by NHTSA. The agency said BMW's supporting materials weren't sufficient "for the agency to fully evaluate the safety need, benefits, effectiveness and acceptability of seatbelt interlock systems" and noted that its own research was under way and scheduled for completion in 2015.

Two automaker organizations — the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Global Automakers — are working with NHTSA to "find a way forward," with seatbelt interlocks, Strickland said. "They want the right outcomes, too."

NHTSA is researching the reliability and tamper-resistance of new seatbelt interlock systems. If they pass muster, NHTSA may permit manufacturers to use voluntary seatbelt interlocks to satisfy some crash-test requirements, Strickland said.

The benefit of seatbelt interlocks for carmakers is that they can save "millions and millions of dollars" in engineering costs that are currently required in vehicle design and construction to keep unbelted vehicle occupants safe during a crash, Strickland said.

Additionally, reliable seatbelt interlocks would allow manufacturers to build lighter cars, improving their fuel economy and ability to meet stiffer air-quality standards. Finally, airbags also could be "tuned" to be more effective if there's an assurance that occupants are belted.

Since seatbelt interlocks would be a feature provided by an automaker rather than a mandatory piece of equipment, Strickland said he expects little consumer backlash this time around.

"To BMW's credit, they've said it...there will be a seatbelt interlock in every BMW, and if you don't want to have an interlock, we suggest you go to another manufacturer and look at their product," Strickland said. "I personally think this will have its own momentum," and the combination of cost savings and safety benefits will prompt widespread adoption by other carmakers.

Defeating DUI
The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety is a cooperative research effort by NHTSA and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety that aims to develop "widespread use of in-vehicle technology to prevent alcohol-impaired driving."

In plain terms, that means developing technologies that would prevent cars from starting if the driver's BAC is higher than the 0.08 legal limit. NHTSA is testing two prototype systems, both of which would be integrated into the vehicle itself.

One system employs a touch-sensitive sensor in the steering wheel and an infrared light to detect the driver's BAC. The other system is breath-based, but doesn't involve breathing into a tube, Strickland said. This system's sensor would be mounted in the vehicle's headliner. "The goal is to have a research vehicle available by the end of 2013 that will demonstrate both of these technologies," according to the project's Web site.

The agency now is undertaking the "hard work" of examining legal and public policy issues, as well as working on consumer acceptance of such systems, Strickland said.

The systems will use the current legal limit of 0.08 BAC as the standard, Strickland said. However, another government agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, has called for lowering the legal limit to 0.05 BAC.

Stopping Crashes Before They Happen
NHTSA has been researching the reliability of forward collision avoidance and mitigation technology, which alert the driver or take action at the vehicle level to avoid a collision.

While alcohol detection and seatbelts interlocks are under study at this point, forward collision detection and avoidance systems are already widely available in vehicles. Some are warning systems only; others include an autobraking feature. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has begun testing and rating these systems. NHTSA will soon decide whether to include the most advanced varieties of forward collision avoidance and mitigation technology in its New Car Assessment Program.

A Tech Fix for a Tech Problem?
A technological fix for the problem of drivers who are distracted by handheld phones is not as far down the research and development path. Strickland said NHTSA is working with safety groups, carmakers, phone makers and phone carrier companies on a lockout system that would disable a driver's handheld phone unless it was paired to a vehicle and controlled through a car's dashboard interface. He said he's seen three technology pathways that would achieve that goal.

Handheld cell phones in cars represent "the ultimate in the attractive nuisance," Strickland said. The challenge is to give consumers the entertainment and information applications they want while keeping them safe.

"We want automakers to be able to innovate, but to innovate on a platform of safety," he said. And while attempts to persuade drivers not to fiddle with their phones will continue, it can't be the only path, Strickland said.

"We recognize we always need to appeal to the angels of our better nature," Strickland said. "You can't abandon that. But if we have the opportunity to make handheld usage a zero-risk proposition because of technology, we have to take that path."

He said he hopes the results won't take as long to show up as they have in the areas of seatbelt use and impaired driving.

"We've been fighting the belt battle for a long time — successfully, but we're not there yet," Strickland said. "And we've been fighting the alcohol battle a long time. I think we have a chance to not have to fight the distraction battle as long as we've fought the other two — because of our opportunities with technology."