The federal government is pushing for automobile safety systems that are expected to aid in the prevention of car accidents.
The systems include seat belt interlocks, collision avoidance systems and alcohol detection devices.
Collision avoidance systems — which warn drivers when they are about to strike another vehicle and can automatically apply the brakes — are already available in some high-end vehicles. Officials are encouraging automakers to widen their availability.
Both seat belt interlocks and alcohol detection systems, which prevent the operation of a vehicle if seat belts are not fastened or if the driver is impaired, need more research before full implementation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that it will “aggressively accelerate” that research.
This push for automobile safety systems comes as final figures on traffic deaths are released for 2012 and represent the first increase since 2005. There were 33,561 highway fatalities in 2012, an increase of 1,082 from the previous year.
Traffic safety officials have stated that these auto safety systems will address the three most important threats to highway safety: drunk driving, distracted driving and failure to use seat belts. According to officials, the technologies are within reach, and they have the potential to significantly reduce highway deaths.
The increase in traffic deaths in 2012 may have been caused in part by an unusually warm winter. 72 percent of the increase in fatalities occurred in the first quarter of the year, and the first quarter of 2012 was also the warmest on record. Although snow and ice are associated with traffic accidents, there are actually more accidents during warmer winters, because more drivers are on the road. The warm winter also lengthened the motorcycle riding season, and motorcycle deaths increased at a greater rate than other fatalities.
Preliminary data from 2013 indicates that the fatality rate may have dropped again in the year following this increase.
The Traffic Safety Administration said that seat belt interlocks could save 3,000 lives per year. The agency is considering changing safety standards to allow automakers to fulfill current crash protection requirements with the seat belt interlocks. In this way, they could opt out of more expensive changes to the interior design of vehicles to reduce injuries to occupants who are thrown around a vehicle during a crash.
Alcohol detection systems currently under research are different from those already required by some states for drivers arrested for or convicted of drunk driving. Those systems usually require the driver to take a step (such as breathing into a tube) before the car will start. The new systems will function automatically. When the driver touches the steering wheel or simply breathes, the devices will detect blood alcohol content and prevent the car from starting if the driver is over the legal limit.