Posts distort infrastructure law’s rule on impaired driving technology
CLAIM: President Joe Biden signed a bill that will give law enforcement access to a “kill switch” that will be attached to ALL new cars in 2026.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. While the bipartisan infrastructure bill Biden signed last year requires advanced drunk and impaired driving technology to become standard equipment in new cars, experts say that technology doesn’t amount to a “kill switch,” and nothing in the bill gives law enforcement access to those systems.
THE FACTS: In November 2021, Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, ushering into law a $1 trillion bipartisan deal to maintain and upgrade the country’s roads, bridges, ports and more.
One provision in the legislation aims to prevent drunk driving deaths by requiring all new vehicles to soon include “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology” as “standard equipment.”
However, in the months since the law passed, some social media users have misrepresented the provision online, falsely claiming it will give police access to data collected by the technology or allow the government to shut down cars remotely.
“Joe Biden signed a bill that would give law enforcement access to a ‘kill switch’ that will be attached to ALL new cars in 2026,” read several posts shared widely on Twitter and Facebook.
Experts who have for years been involved in creating and studying impaired driving prevention technology say that those claims don’t accurately reflect what these tools do, nor what the law says.
The law gives the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency under the Department of Transportation, three years to define which specific technologies cars should begin using. Once defined, automakers have between two and three years to comply.
The law leaves most of the details up to NHTSA, specifying only that the technology should be equipped to passively monitor a driver’s behavior or blood alcohol concentration, as well as prevent or limit motor vehicle operation if the driver is impaired.
Existing technologies and those in development to prevent drunk driving generally fall into two categories: driver monitoring systems that use sensors or cameras to monitor the driver’s behaviors, head or eye movements, and alcohol detection systems that use touch-based or breath-based sensors to measure the driver’s blood alcohol concentration. In either case, if a driver is found to be impaired, the car might employ a warning message, block the driver from operating the vehicle, or if the vehicle is already in motion, direct it to a safe stop or automated ride home.
None of the technologies currently in development would notify law enforcement of the data collected inside vehicles or give government agencies remote control of vehicles, according to Jeffrey Michael, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Injury Research and Policy.
“I’ve been associated with this technology since the beginning of its development and it has always been viewed as a prevention device rather than an enforcement device,” Michael said. He added that his interpretation of the law was that it has “nothing to do with giving law enforcement access to a kill switch.”
Robert Strassburger, president and CEO of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, is involved in a public-private partnership with NHTSA to develop an alcohol detection system for vehicles. He said the partnership agreement includes a requirement to build security measures that would prevent third parties from accessing any data collected by the technology.
Strassburger said his team is considering systems that could warn an impaired driver, prevent an impaired driver from moving the vehicle, or reduce the speed of the vehicle and get it safely home. He said the term “kill switch” is hyperbole, since none of the options being considered would include the risky move of lurching a fast-moving vehicle to an abrupt stop.
No matter which direction the technology goes, Strassburger said, the data collected by the vehicle would “never leave the vehicle.”
The provision in the infrastructure law emerged from two earlier bills in the Senate and House of Representatives, each sponsored by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a nonprofit which advocated for those bills and helped draft their language, said it would not support giving law enforcement or commercial entities access to any of the impaired driving data that will be collected in vehicles.
“What’s circulating online is absolutely false,” said Stephanie Manning, chief government affairs officer at MADD. “MADD is completely committed to a vehicle technology standard that protects driver privacy. We’re not interested in any of that information being used other than very briefly to either disable a vehicle from being operated by a drunk driver or to safely bring an in motion vehicle to an appropriate stop.”
NHTSA did not respond to a request for comment.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.