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‘Surreal’ moment for McMorris family as lobbying efforts lead to drunk-driving detection systems in new cars

As President Joe Biden signed the $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law Monday, Alisa McMorris of Shoreham rejoiced.

The bill, which will fund aging bridges, roads and rail lines and expand broadband internet across the country, will also lead to sweeping changes in the auto manufacturing industry that could significantly reduce drunk driving crashes in the United States. 

“I don’t want another mother to have to experience the pain I went through,” Ms. McMorris said, speaking about the tragic death of her son, Andrew, who was killed by a drunk driver while hiking with his Boy Scout troop in Manorville in 2018. He was 12. Ms. McMorris and her husband, John, partnered with the national nonprofit Mothers Against Drunk Driving to advocate for the bill’s passage and helped lobby lawmakers for more than a year.

The bill includes a section entitled “Advanced Impaired Driving Technology,” which calls on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set new safety standards that advocates say will prevent drunk, impaired and distracted driving.

It will require vehicles manufactured after a certain date to come equipped with technology that could include driving performance monitoring systems like lane departure warning and attention assist, a camera or sensor system to monitor the driver’s head and eyes or alcohol detection systems that would determine whether a driver is drunk and then prevent the car from moving. Once the safety standards are set, automakers will be given a three-year window to implement the technology, meaning vehicles made after 2026 will have the monitoring systems.

“We need technology to stop the nightmare on our roads,” said Alex Otte, MADD national president. “Existing technologies and those in development will stop the hazardous driving behavior of people who refuse to make the right choice themselves.”

Ms. Otte and other advocates are hailing the bill’s passage as the biggest legislative victory in the group’s 41-year history.

Ms. Otte also said it could virtually eliminate drunk driving.

A 2020 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that more than 9,400 lives could be saved each year when the systems are implemented on all new cars. An estimated 10,000 Americans are killed in drunk driving crashes each year, according to the NHTSA.

“It was surreal. We’ve been working so hard on this,” Ms. McMorris said in an interview Tuesday, describing the bill’s passage as what she hopes will be the beginning of the end of drunk driving.

Alisa McMorris met with a group from Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Washington D.C. (Courtesy photo)

Ms. McMorris had just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., where she met with MADD officials and gathered to virtually watch the bill be signed into law.

She said MADD has submitted a list of 241 different technologies for the NHTSA to consider. Eventually, those technologies will be just as mundane as seat belts, airbags and backup cameras.

“We want to save as many lives as we can,” Ms. McMorris said, explaining that she would support any combination of technology in vehicles that could prevent other drunk driving tragedies from occurring. “If you are a sober, non-distracted driver, you’ll never know it’s in your car.”

Ms. McMorris was struck by how common drunk driving crashes are: MADD estimates that two out of three people will be impacted by a drunk driving crash in their lifetime. She said there were two game-changing moments along the way: The first was a Zoom call arranged between Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), the McMorrises and some of Andrew’s friends. “We got to tell him our story and learned about some of his own experiences. As a teenager, his neighbor was killed by a drunk driver.”

Another was during a meeting with Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), who signed on as a cosponsor and shared his own close encounter with a drunk driver as a college student in the early 1990s. At 19, he was struck head-on by a drunk driver who veered out of their lane.

Being in Washington, D.C., as the bill was approved by Congress and then signed, Ms. McMorris said, was both euphoric and bittersweet.

She says the technology has been available for over a decade — well before Andrew was killed. “It’s hard not to be a little angry that we waited this long,” she said. “[The defendant’s] car was a brand new Mercedes.”

The Shoreham family plans to stay involved as hearings are held before the NHTSA and are also turning their attention to New York State legislation concerning driving while intoxicated and aggravated vehicular homicide crimes.

The Andrew McMorris Foundation also recently held their annual benefit gala to support scholarships, grants and legislative initiatives. This year, the organization raised enough money to take their scholarship program nationwide.

Ms. McMorris said she’ll sleep more comfortably knowing that by the time her future grandchildren begin driving, it’ll be much safer due to technology.

“There’s this sweetness knowing that future generations won’t have to experience this but a sorrow that so many had to die to get to this point.”