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Abbas relative William Mirza reads poem written by 14-year-old A.J. Abbas, who was killed along with his family in a car crash.
Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press

WASHINGTON – The deaths of a Michigan family of five in January when a truck slammed into their car in Kentucky has Congress wondering whether interlock devices that keep drunken drivers off the road entirely should be mandatory for all vehicles.

On Thursday, members of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee specifically invoked the deaths of Issam Abbas, his wife, Rima, and their three children as they questioned whether technology that could keep vehicles from being operated by any drunken driver should be more widely required.

And while any move to mandate devices in all vehicles to keep them from starting without the driver first blowing into a tube or taking some other action to test his or her sobriety is unlikely in the near future, it was clear that some members of Congress and safety advocates believe that federal regulators should be moving in that direction.  

“What’s sad is that this story has been repeated over and over again and Congress needs to step up and do something about it,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn. “The technology exists to save lives.”

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The Abbas family, clockwise from left, Ali, Rima, Issam, Isabelle and Giselle, pose for a photo at a wedding in 2018.  (Photo: Bill Mcdad, Bill Mcdad)

At present, interlock devices are generally only required by state courts after someone has been arrested for drunken driving. But with more than 10,000 drunken driving fatalities a year, some safety advocates and members of Congress are pushing legislation, such as Dingell’s Abbas Stop Drunk Driving Act, which could mandate interlock devices in an effort keep drunken drivers off the road.

The family was headed home from a vacation trip when a truck operated by 41-year-old Joey Bailey hit their vehicle head-on on Jan. 6 on I-75 in Kentucky. A coroner said Bailey had a blood-alcohol level of .306, well above the .08 legal limit to drive.

The only technology currently available involves an interlock device that connects to the car and requires the driver to blow into a tube before the vehicle will start. 

But for more than a decade, the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety — an organization funded by domestic and international automakers — has been working on technology that could result in devices that keep a car from starting based on more passive testing, such as automatically measuring the blood-alcohol of a driver as he or she breathes naturally behind the wheel, or a touch-based system that “measures blood alcohol levels by shining an infrared–light through the fingertip of the driver.”

Robert Strassburger, the president and CEO of the coalition, said the technology is still being developed and is only being tested on less than a half-dozen vehicles in Virginia. But he hopes it will be available for a wider fleet of vehicles — such as government agency vehicles — for testing by next year and for commercial purchase by 2004.

Automakers aren’t, at this point, advocating making such technology — or the available interlock devices — mandatory, however, and are generally loathe to have federal regulators or Congress force requirements on them, especially if there are fears that the public isn’t ready to accept them or they could result in unacceptably high costs.

The auto industry has also been investing heavily into the promise of automated vehicles, which could potentially make the problem of drunken driving virtually disappear — though that technology is also unlikely to be widely available in the near future.

The Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, a trade group of domestic and international automakers, put out a statement saying that automakers continue to work to address impaired driving and support present-day ignition interlocks and law enforcement’s use of them, though it said those rules could always be reviewed.

“Industry, in cooperation with the federal government, is also examining emerging technologies to combat drunk driving,” the Alliance statement continued. “Such technology must not hassle the sober driver. It also must be small, quick, noninvasive, accurate, reliable, repeatable, foolproof, durable and easy to maintain.  And, of course, it must have the public’s support.” 

Safety advocates and others, meanwhile, argued that Strassburger and the industry are dragging their feet and that if they won’t make faster progress, Congress and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should require — by a certain date — that the existing interlock devices be mandated on vehicles.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the industry on this issue,” said Joan Claybrook, a board member of the safety group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administrator in the Carter administration. 

“Where is this system?” she continued. “It didn’t take this long to produce (the technology for) air bags and air bags are a lot more complicated than this. Why is this not in every car?”

Strassburger and David Kelly, the executive director of the Coalition of Interlock Ignition Manufacturers, said that it is vital to build consumer support for such systems or there could be backlash. Some members of the committee questioned whether drivers might also find ways to disable or otherwise get around the technology.

“(We have) always been built to try to increase consumer awareness at the same time as technology,” said Stassburger. He added that “not hassling drivers (who) are not the problem is a very important consideration.”

Dingell, however, said that the promises of technology that will end drunken driving still seem to keep getting pushed off. “We keep funding it, but it doesn’t get there.”

Contact Todd Spangler: tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.

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