The Infrastructure Bill Requires New Cars To Come With Unproven Drunk Driving Detection Technology

As early as 2026, new cars will have to come equipped with "advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology."


The new car you buy will have to come equipped with a futuristic breathalyzer, should the bipartisan infrastructure proposal currently working its way through Congress become law.

Included in the 2,700-page bill is a provision directing the U.S. secretary of transportation to issue regulations for new motor vehicles requiring them to come equipped with "advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology."

This new prevention technology would have to "passively detect" whether a driver is impaired and "passively" measure his blood alcohol concentration to see if it's above the 0.08 percent limit set by federal regulations. If this technology does determine a driver is impaired or over the limit, it will have to be able to stop someone from driving his vehicle.

There's been a steady bipartisan effort in Congress over the past few years to require new cars to come with this kind of technology.

In 2019, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Mich.) introduced the Honoring Abbas Family Legacy to Terminate (HALT) Drunk Driving Act—named after a Michigan family killed by a drunk driver—that is nearly identical to the provision in the infrastructure bill.

"We have the technology to prevent drunk driving and save lives, and it's long past time that we use it," said Dingell in a press release in March when she reintroduced the HALT Act alongside sponsors Reps. Kathleen Rice (D–N.Y.) and David McKinley (R–W. Va.).

Earlier this year, Dingell's bill was folded into House Democrats' $715 billion surface transportation bill, the INVEST in America Act. Its inclusion in the bipartisan infrastructure bill only increases its odds of passing.

The legislation nevertheless leaves a lot of details to be ironed out at a later date. That includes precisely what type of anti–drunk driving technology car manufacturers might be required to install.

Already people convicted of drunk driving offenses in some states are required to have ignition interlock devices that detect alcohol on drivers' breath. These devices are expensive to install, however, and often require regular service and calibration.

They also seemingly wouldn't be "passive" methods of detecting one's blood alcohol content, so they probably wouldn't fit the requirements for this technology in the infrastructure bill.

Car and Driver notes that Nissan experimented with other types of detection technology, including a sensor in the gear stick that would detect alcohol in the driver's sweat and air sensors that would detect alcohol in the cabin.

The latter device, NBC News reports, proved ineffective because it can be tripped up by inebriated passengers.

"I don't think that will be as easy as people might think," Carla Bailo, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, told NBC.

Perhaps recognizing that a lot of this technology isn't available for prime time, both Dingell's bill and the drunk driving portions of the infrastructure bill provide for a lot of time between now and when any new regulations might go into effect.

Should the big infrastructure bill become law, regulators will have three years to come up with new standards car manufacturers will have to meet. Automakers will then have a minimum of two years, and as long as three, to come into compliance with these new standards.

So, new cars won't have to come installed with the breathalyzer of the future until 2026 at the earliest.

The infrastructure bill also gives the transportation secretary the ability to delay issuing final regulations by an additional three years if he or she determines that the new technology being mandated isn't "reasonable, practicable, and appropriate."

That could push out implementation until 2030, or potentially even later. The text of the bill says that, if a final regulation doesn't come down in 10 years, the transportation secretary will have to submit a report to House and Senate's commerce committees on what's taking so long.

Giving so much time for these regulations to be implemented seems sensible enough given the detection technology being mandated is either untested or still on the drawing board.

At the same time, by mandating cars come with features that haven't been invented yet, Congress is ceding a lot of power to bureaucrats to craft whatever rules they want and implement them whenever they see fit.

It also means that car manufacturers will have to devote a lot of time and money to developing these drunk driving detection features. That could come at the expense of the development of more effective, but unmandated, safety features. Requiring cars to have cameras installed that monitor a driver's performance also raises some worrying privacy concerns.

Should the infrastructure bill pass, we'll have a good 10 years of bureaucratic rule-making to gauge how serious those concerns are. Perhaps the whole issue will be moot by then when all new cars also happen to be self-driving.