WASHINGTON -- The federal government is speeding up research on safety systems that automatically prevent drivers from operating their cars if they are drunk or aren't properly buckled in.
Officials also said Thursday they expect to decide by year's end how to encourage automakers to make some special safety systems already in certain high-end vehicles available in more cars. Those systems warn drivers before a collision they are about to run into another vehicle and can brake automatically to avoid a crash or make it less severe.
The innovations -- collision avoidance, seatbelt interlocks and driver alcohol detection systems -- hold the potential of dramatically reducing traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
As they looked ahead to emerging safety technologies, officials released data showing the first increase in highway fatalities since 2005. In the U.S., there were 33,561 traffic deaths in 2012, or 1,082 more than the year before.
Despite the government's best efforts, some Americans are still driving drunk, driving distracted and not wearing seatbelts, David Strickland, the agency's head, told reporters in a conference call.
"These technologies are in within reach," he said. "They address the top three highway safety threats. They have the potential to significantly decrease those deaths. We only need the will to act."
The three per cent increase in highway fatalities may be due in part to last year's unusually warm winter, which lengthened the motorcycle riding season. Seventy-two per cent of the increase occurred in the first three months of the year. Most of those involved were motorcyclists or pedestrians, the government said.
Preliminary data so far this year indicates traffic deaths may be dropping again, Strickland said.
The seat-belt interlocks would prevent cars and trucks from being driven when the driver or a passenger isn't buckled in properly. The agency said this potentially could save about 3,000 people a year.
The agency is examining whether it should change safety standards to allow automakers to use the devices to satisfy current government requirements for occupant protection in crash tests.
Automakers have indicated they'd prefer to install automatic systems that ensure all occupants are belted, which is cheaper than spending money on designing the interiors of cars and trucks to ensure unbelted occupants, who get thrown around in collisions, aren't injured, Strickland said. The safety administration is trying to determine whether the interlocks can be made tamper-proof and highly reliable.
The "driver alcohol detection system" differs from devices already required by some states for drivers arrested or convicted of drunken driving. In those cases, drivers usually have to take some step -- often breathing into a tube -- to test their blood alcohol content before starting the car.
-- The Associated Press