November 20, 2019

VIDEO: Udall Champions Legislation to Stop Drunk Driving, Pushes Top Safety Officials to Protect Public in Autonomous Vehicle Technology Deployment

VIDEO LINK: [Udall begins at the 1:18:40 mark]

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) pushed the nation’s top highway safety officials to improve transportation safety in a Senate Commerce Committee Hearing entitled “Highly Automated Vehicles: Federal Perspectives on the Deployment of Safety Technology.” Udall advocated for his legislation, the RIDE Act, to stop drunk driving with in-car technology, and pressed federal transportation officials to set safety rules for the deployment of autonomous vehicle technology in light of the death of an Arizona pedestrian last year who was struck by a self-driving car. Federal regulators have not yet issued binding safety standards for self-driving technology, despite plans by a variety of companies to deploy increasing numbers of them on American streets in the near future. 

Udall has long championed federal policies to combat driving under the influence (DUI) and enhance road safety and invest in key transportation infrastructure. Last month, Udall and U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) unveiled the RIDE Act, legislation that would direct the federal government to build upon its investments in technology to prevent drunk driving and require automobile manufacturers to install systems that would save thousands of lives each year.

"The fact is that deaths from drunk driving and autonomous vehicles are completely preventable – so we have an obligation to do everything we can to prevent such senseless tragedies,” Udall said in his opening statement. “While I appreciate the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles, I remain concerned that humans will be used as the test dummies.  Instead of self-certification and deregulation, I want to see strong, independent safety regulation from the agencies in front of us today…. The public does not want their safety watchdogs getting too cozy with industry, and industry should welcome strong safety regulation as being in their own long-term best interest.”

The RIDE Act of 2019 will fund the technology transfer of federally funded research and development of advanced alcohol detection technology that detects whether a driver is impaired over the legal limit and, if so, prevents that driver from operating the car and threatening public safety. The act sets up a pilot program for fleet deployment of vehicles equipped with this technology with the federal General Services Administration, state and local partners, and private fleet owners.  Finally, the act requires a rulemaking to mandate installment of impairment technology in every new vehicle. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that over 7000 lives will be saved annually if drivers with blood alcohol levels over .08, the current federal limit, were kept off the road.

Udall continued, “While autonomous vehicle technology has safety potential, I want to also focus our witnesses and this committee on technology to eliminate drunk driving. It’s totally unacceptable that drunk drivers kill around 10,000 people every year in this country—nearly 30% of all traffic fatalities. The federal government has been spending tens of millions of dollars on technology to stop drunk driving and it’s time to get moving. We must continue to push legislation that will help prevent senseless deaths.”

Udall then pressed Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board Robert Sumwalt and Dr. James Owens, Acting Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, on the lax safety standards reminiscent of the FAA regulation of the Boeing 737 Max 8.

“After witnessing what happened with Boeing and the 737 MAX 8, are you personally confident that every manufacturer of autonomous vehicle technology would slow down or stop their deployment—given the intense investor and market pressures to make money—if they became internally aware of a safety problem?” Udall asked.

“We found that there does need to be some level of oversight with respect to the testing of automated vehicles,” Sumwalt responded. “We think that’s important to evaluating the safety of these operators.”

“We do exercise safety oversight over these developing vehicles,” Owens added. “Under the law, any manufacturer that discovers a safety problem has to make us aware. If they do not make us aware, they will be subject to penalties, and civil action. We do not hesitate to take action. If we determine that any piece of motor vehicle equipment poses an unreasonable risk to safety, we can be sure that it is recalled. This is an authority that exists whether or not we have a regulatory standard in place.”