When a family of five from Northville was killed by a drunk driver, the sister of one of the victims decided to make meaningful change in their honor.
In January 2019, the Abbas family, from Northville with ties to Dearborn, was traveling on I-75 in Lexington, Kentucky, returning to Michigan from a trip to Florida when they were struck by a wrong-way driver.
All five people in the vehicle -- Issam Abbas, 42, Rima Abbas, 38, Ali Abbas, 14, Isabella Abbas, 13, and Giselle Abbas, 7 -- died because of the crash.
Rima Abbas’ sister, Rana Abbas Taylor, has been working with Congress to get new legislation passed.
“It’s really still kind of surreal. I don’t know if it’s fully hit me yet,” said Abbas Taylor.
Michigan U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI 12) introduced legislation in 2019.
New law for drunk driving detection systems
Now, there’s a new law on the books bringing new technology to vehicles. The bill that has the Abbas family name is now law. While the path getting to this point was long, it isn’t over yet.
The new law is part of the sweeping bipartisan infrastructure bill. It makes drunk driving detection systems mandatory in new cars by 2026. While there has been some praise from automakers, there has also been caution and outright pushback to the mandate.
“A lot of commentary about, you know, ‘We are excited to do this, step into this partnership.’ I’ve also heard, ‘Yes, it sounds great but we aren’t sure how feasible it is.’ We know it’s feasible. We know it can be done,” said Abbas Taylor.
There are still hurdles to getting those systems in cars. Experts believe thousands of lives could be saved each year. The work isn’t over. They now have to work out the rules and guidance with several government agencies, a process that starts in the coming weeks.
The legislation directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to initiate a rulemaking process and set the final standard within three years for impaired driving safety equipment on all new vehicles. NHTSA will evaluate technologies that may include:
- Driving performance monitoring systems that monitor the vehicle movement using cameras and sensors that are outside the vehicle, such as lane departure warning and attention assist
- Systems that monitor the driver’s head and eyes, typically using a camera or other sensors that are inside the vehicle
- Alcohol detection systems that use sensors to determine whether a driver is drunk and then prevent the vehicle from moving
Automakers are now given two to three years to implement the safety standard. New cars equipped with the NHTSA-directed technology could start rolling off the assembly line in 2026-2027.
From July: Drunk driving crackdown bill in honor of Abbas family advances in US Congress
Previously introduced as the “HALT Act” by Rep. Debbie Dingell, it was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support this past summer.
“I’m very pleased that we were able to get it through,” Dingell said. “I know Senator Lujan is very committed and I think this has a good chance of becoming law.”
The bill mandates ways to detect drunk drivers in vehicles with pre-existing technology -- like monitoring erratic speed or lane changes, or using more advanced systems that can detect alcohol through infrared sensors.
For Abbas Taylor, who has become the face and voice for her family and the families of hundreds of others, she said the bill’s passage has brought her hard work into stark relief.
“It’s still really emotional,” Abbas-Taylor said. “It’s surreal but there’s just this feeling of peace that comes with it. They’ve left it as part of their legacy and it’s pretty cool. Future victims will never know the work that went into lives saved.”
She pointed to a new study that showed that drunk driving fatalities were up in 2020, killing more than 10,000 people. And that’s with fewer people on the road.