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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Joan Davis: Technology a vital tool in stopping drunken driving

By Joan Davis

By Joan Davis

No one on Earth has the power to bring my daughter back to me. But two Washington legislators have new leadership roles on key congressional committees, giving them the power to help prevent thousands of other drunken driving deaths this year.

U.S. Sen.Maria Cantwell(D) is incoming chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) is now ranking member on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Both of those committees have jurisdiction over major auto safety legislation, which means both will soon be seeing bills that would finally leverage advanced technology to stop drunken people from driving.

Drunken-driving deaths made up 28% of all auto fatalities in 2019. Yet numbers barely convey the magnitude of the tragedy. How do you put a human face on the more than 10,000 people killed each year nationwide by drunken driving? What can you possibly say to families of the 172 people who died in alcohol-impaired driving occurrences in Washington just in 2019?

You can’t. There are no words. Year after year. Family after family. On Jan. 21, 2008, at 5:30 p.m., my own family’s life changed forever. That’s when my eldest daughter, Jessica, was killed by a drunken driver who hit her head-on while she was driving home from work.

Jessica wasn’t a statistic. She was the precious baby girl who, years before, had been placed in my arms wrapped in a little pink blanket. She herself struggled with and conquered substance abuse. She was the sober, responsible, loving mother of her own two children who thought she was coming home to them that January night.

The driver who hit her was a man with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit, driving 79 mph on a two-lane country road. He survived the crash. He was convicted of vehicular homicide. He expressed remorse after he was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Six years later, he pleaded guilty to another DUI.

That man killed my daughter, went to prison, then returned to drinking and driving. It doesn’t just boggle the mind. It proves to me that changing someone’s behavior is nearly impossible. I’m not alone in that conclusion: Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) agrees that we can no longer rely on the three “E’s” of education, engineering and enforcement that safety experts employed for several decades to fight drunken driving. Those strategies have reduced drunken driving deaths by 52 percent. But that’s not enough for families like mine who ended up on the wrong side of that number.

Technology is the only remaining tool available to stop the slaughter on our roads and highways caused by drunken driving. Two technologies in particular would save thousands of lives by keeping drunken people from driving: driver monitoring systems and alcohol detection systems. A driver monitoring system can detect signs of distracted, impaired or fatigued driving. An alcohol detection system uses sensors to determine drivers are under the influence of alcohol and prevent their vehicle from moving.

Here’s what I want Cantwell and McMorris Rodgers to know: These technologies exist. Toyota and Nissan developed comprehensive systems in 2007 and Volvo is planning to install a drunken-driving prevention system in the not-too-distant future. More than 9,400 lives could be saved if all new cars had this advanced technology installed, according to a study by the respected Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

What we need now is legislation that moves these systems out of research and development and into all new vehicles as mandatory standard equipment.

Congress almost had the problem fixed when the clock ran out. Last year, legislation was introduced that would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct a rulemaking that results in a requirement for drunken driving prevention systems in all new vehicles in the near future. The House passed its version in 2020. A similar measure in the Senate with bipartisan support was pending before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee when the 116th Congress ended. The legislation is slated for reintroduction this year.

Neither the Biden administration nor Congress have the power to bring my Jessica back. But they can help families like mine win the battle to end drunken driving – and save thousands of others – by getting this technology installed in all new vehicles.

Joan Davis is a volunteer and board member with Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Kitsap County.