On January 1, 2021, about 8:00 p.m., a sport utility vehicle (SUV), occupied by only the driver, was traveling south on State Route 33 (SR-33) near Avenal, California. SR-33 is a two-lane roadway with one lane in each direction and a posted speed limit of 55 mph. The SUV driver had just left a New Year’s Day gathering where he had consumed alcohol, and he was driving at a speed between 88 and 98 mph. The SUV partially departed from the paved roadway onto a dirt and gravel shoulder area to the right. The SUV driver then made a steering correction to the left, causing the vehicle to go out of control. The SUV crossed the highway centerline and intruded
into the northbound lane directly in front of a northbound pickup truck, which was occupied by an adult driver and seven passengers, ranging in age from 6 to 15 years old, and was traveling at a speed between 64 and 70 mph. The SUV and pickup truck collided head-on. The pickup truck immediately caught on fire, and other vehicle operators on SR 33 who stopped at the crash scene had insufficient time to extricate any occupants before fire engulfed the truck. As a result of the crash, the SUV driver and all eight pickup truck occupants died.
The failure of the SUV driver to maintain control of his vehicle was due to a high level of alcohol impairment—his blood alcohol concentration was more than double California’s per se legal limit of 0.08 grams per deciliter. Although the postcrash toxicology tests that were conducted at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) detected evidence of cannabis use, the NTSB was unable to determine whether the effects of cannabis use contributed to the driver’s impairment.
Due to the high closing speed between the two vehicles and the suddenness of the lane incursion, the pickup truck driver had insufficient time to take evasive action to avoid the crash. Although the SUV driver and many of the pickup truck occupants were not appropriately restrained, it is unlikely that the crash was survivable, given the severity of the head-on crash, the significant vehicle intrusion, and the rapid spread of the postcrash fire.
Driving under the influence of alcohol remains a leading cause of injury-involved highway crashes. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2020, roughly one in three traffic fatalities resulted from crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers. Recent data show that impaired driving crashes are increasing.Because people who are impaired by alcohol often have compromised judgment and indulge in increased risk-taking, interventions are needed that do not require decision-making by impaired drivers. Vehicle-integrated passive alcohol detection technologies that prevent or limit impaired drivers from operating their vehicles have significant lifesaving potential; however, development of the technologies has been slow, and additional action is needed to accelerate progress in implementing these technologies.
The SUV driver’s high rate of speed contributed to the crash severity and lack of survivability for occupants of both vehicles. Intelligent speed adaptation (ISA) is an effective vehicle technology to reduce speeding, and the severity of the Avenal crash might have been mitigated if the SUV had been equipped with a closed ISA system that limited its speed.
During the investigation, the NTSB learned that postmortem toxicology testing of the blood specimens conducted by the laboratory contracted by the Fresno County medical examiner did not include screening for cannabis. California has no uniform standard for drug toxicology testing, and information concerning the prevalence of impairing drug use by drivers would be improved if testing protocols were standardized. Moreover, without federal guidance or a regionally based standard for drug toxicology testing, policymakers have insufficient information with which to evaluate the effectiveness of countermeasures to address the problem of drugged driving.
We determined that the probable cause of the Avenal, California, crash was the failure of the sport utility vehicle (SUV) driver to control his vehicle due to a high level of alcohol impairment. Contributing to the severity of the crash was the SUV driver’s excessive speed.
As a result of this investigation, we recommended that NHTSA require that all new vehicles be equipped with passive vehicle-integrated alcohol impairment detection systems, advanced driver monitoring systems, or a combination thereof; the systems must be capable of preventing or limiting vehicle operation if driver impairment by alcohol is detected. To ensure that the automotive industry is engaged in this important safety effort, we also recommended that the Alliance for Automotive Innovation inform its members (who manufacture close to 98 percent of the new cars and light trucks sold in the United States) about this crash and encourage them to accelerate development and prioritize deployment of advanced impaired driving prevention technology and to seek innovative ways to adapt existing technologies, such as driver monitoring systems, to combat alcohol-impaired driving. We also reiterated a recommendation to NHTSA to incentivize passenger vehicle manufacturers and consumers to adopt ISA systems by, for example, including ISA in the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP).
To address issues identified with drug toxicology testing in California, we recommended that the state enact legislation that requires forensic toxicology laboratories to follow the standards recommended by the National Safety Council’s Alcohol, Drugs, and Impairment Division and to update testing protocols if additional federal guidance is provided. In conjunction with the recommendation to California, we also reiterated a recommendation to NHTSA to develop and disseminate to state officials a common standard of practice for drug toxicology testing.