Property and casualty insurers quietly celebrated passage of President Joe Biden’s massive Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in late November because, according to one industry official, “it had everything we wanted.”
While the law OK’d huge investments in transportation improvements that got most of the publicity, less noticed features of the $1.2 trillion bill call for more than $17 billion in road and automobile safety mandates. This includes requirements that, as early as 2026, auto manufacturers install monitoring systems in new cars that will help stop impaired drivers. This would include built-in breathalyzers to detect alcohol levels, motion detectors to spot distracted driving, automatic emergency braking, and “black boxes” to monitor and record systems and navigation.
The mandate is on Page 1,066 of the bill and says all new vehicles will be required to have “passive monitoring devices” to detect drug and alcohol overuse in the vehicle. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says alcohol-detection systems that prevent impaired driving could save upward of 9,000 lives a year, and reduce the estimated $44 billion in economic costs associated with drunken driving deaths in the U.S. They also might lower auto insurance premiums. Deeper still into the bill is a part called “Drug-Impaired Driving Data Collection.” It establishes a deadline for federal agencies to identify ways to improve reporting of toxicology testing in cases of motor vehicle crashes.
What The Infrastructure Bill Has To Do With Marijuana
“We have never taken a position on legalization of marijuana but there are driver safety ramifications that need to be addressed,” said Robert Passmore, vice president of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association. “Most states have driving while impaired laws that apply to a whole bunch of substances. But there’s no standard way to measure marijuana impairment and no scientifically established levels. We don’t have that yet.”
Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana in some form and accidents in those states are rising, Passmore said. Research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that auto accident rates spiked in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington after recreational marijuana use and retail sales were made legal.
“We have advocated for research to try to figure out how to measure impairment,” Passmore said. “The fact that it may be in someone’s blood is not an indicator of impairment. All it means is that at some point, they ingested some cannabis.”
The problem has been that because cannabis is still federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, researchers were able to study effects of only government-grown marijuana, not the multitude varieties sold to consumers in legalized states. The new law changes that and Passmore said the industry is hopeful a scientifically based standard of impairment, like the 0.08 blood alcohol level, will be established.
“There’s been a dearth of research in that area because of marijuana’s status as a controlled substance,” he said. “So, we’re really glad to see that some funding was provided for that and some leeway for researchers.”
While driver safety and enforcement are the primary motivations for the industry, it’s also dollars and cents that are driving the reforms. Safer cars and drivers should mean fewer accidents and fewer liability settlements. It also may ultimately mean lower insurance premiums, though increased costs of repair of the complex systems may negate any savings for some drivers. Just replacing a windshield might become more expensive as some of the new sensors could be embedded in the wind screen.
“We know that as these safety features get more ubiquitous, they’ll help reduce accident frequency, but these technologies are expensive and the cost of vehicles, insurance, and repair are like to rise,” Passmore said.
Concern Over Uptick In Accidents
Despite decades of advancements in vehicle safety, seat belt laws and law enforcement, the industry and regulators are concerned about the recent and surprising uptick in auto accidents and fatalities. The government this year reported the largest increase ever recorded of automobile fatalities during a six-month period. More than 20,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roads, a nearly 20 percent increase from the same period in 2020.
The death toll estimates were announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Incidents of speeding and not using seatbelts were also found to be higher than before the pandemic.
The Federal Highway Administration with support from insurers and automakers has accelerated two safety programs, the Department of Transportation said. The Focused Approach to Safety Program has told 15 states and Puerto Rico — which account for half of road fatalities nationwide – that they will receive technical assistance to address the most common types of crashes. These include roadway departures, intersection crashes, and pedestrian/bicycle crashes.
The second program involves new strategies to its Proven Safety Countermeasures initiative, design elements to make roads safer, but are underused. These include rapid flashing beacons, crosswalk visibility enhancements, bicycle lanes, lighting, wider edge lines, variable speed limits, appropriate speed limit-setting and speed safety cameras.
Passmore said many of the safety features mandated by the new infrastructure law have already been embraced by major automobile manufacturers but he nevertheless is happy to see them written into law. And there’s still more the industry is working on.
We want to be able to allow the insurer access to event data recorders in vehicles,” he said. “Right now, there’s kind of a limited number of data points insurers have. So, we’re looking for current event data recorder laws to be expanded to include more data points that reflect how the vehicle is being operated at the time of a crash, and to allow access to a third party like an insurer without a court order or subpoena.”
Doug Bailey is a journalist and freelance writer who lives outside of Boston. He can be reached at [email protected].
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