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As Auto Safety Agency Turns 40, Challenges Remain; Action Needed on Large, Unfinished Agenda

Sept. 12, 2006

As Auto Safety Agency Turns 40, Challenges Remain;
Action Needed on Large, Unfinished Agenda

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

Today is the 40th anniversary of the enactment of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to save lives on the highway. It was a definitive moment in American history, ending decades of dithering over conferences and studies while deaths on the highway rapidly increased. At that time, almost 50,000 people were killed annually in highway crashes and the death rate was more than 5.5 per million vehicle miles of travel.

For years, the auto industry blamed this carnage on driver behavior (“the life you save may be your own”), even though it was aware that poor vehicle design was a prime culprit and far easier to remedy than any attempt to influence tens of millions of drivers. When a new federal regulatory agency was proposed by President Johnson, the industry argued that such regulation was a matter for state law. But when auto industry executives testified in Iowa that same year about possible state regulation, they asserted, with typical cross-town hypocrisy, that only the federal government could be the regulator of manufacturing and interstate commerce. 

The publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed” in late 1965 severely criticized the Detroit auto manufacturers (which produced 85 percent of the market) for ignoring safety while investing in design and marketing. It was followed in several months by a revelation that General Motors (GM) had hired a detective to dig up dirt on the then-unknown author, Ralph Nader. GM’s malfeasance galvanized Congress to enact a new law to improve motor vehicle safety in under nine months.

The important new statute required the agency to issue vehicle safety standards not only to prevent crashes but also to protect occupants when a crash occurred, and coined a new term based on the developing science of auto safety: “crashworthiness.” It also authorized the agency to conduct research for vehicle standards and to promote highway safety through state traffic laws and programs. It required the agency to produce experimental safety vehicles to showcase new technologies and authorized the investigation of safety defects, requiring notification of those defects to consumers because Detroit for 60 years had covered up safety defects and failed to notify consumers. In 1974, the agency got the authority to require recalls of unsafe vehicles and parts. 

In its early years, NHTSA issued dozens of vehicle and highway safety standards, as well as standards for vehicle consumer information. The standards required installation in all cars of collapsible steering columns, laminated windshield glass, lap and shoulder belts, head restraints, dual braking protection, air bags and safer tires. The auto industry was critical of the agency’s activities from day one. Henry Ford II held a press conference in late 1966 after the issuance of the first proposed standards, claiming they would close down Detroit unless modified. Some modifications were made, but not all that he wanted.

The automakers soon recovered their influence, however. The roof crush resistance standard was seriously undermined after the agency in 1971 caved in to Detroit’s pressure to test the roof on only one side, despite the fact that both sides of the roof are hit by the ground in a rollover crash. The fuel tank standard was finally issued in 1974 under duress after Congressman John Moss of California threatened to mandate it by law.

The air bag standard was delayed from 1973 to 1976 after President Nixon was visited by Henry Ford and Lee Iacocca, who complained about the cost of air bags and fuel tank safety. In all, it took 20 years of battling with Detroit before the standard took effect in 1989 models – half the agency’s lifetime. President Reagan’s revocation of the standard was unanimously overruled, with the Supreme Court proclaiming that the automakers had “waged the regulatory equivalent of war against the air bag and lost.”

By the 1990s, Congress grew impatient with a decade of inaction and decided to mandate action by the agency, citing the long period of few achievements on key safety issues. Laws mandating a specific safety standard agenda for agency action were enacted in 1991, 1998, 2000 and 2005. The agency, under hostile administrations, too often has undermined these mandates by issuing deeply inadequate rules (some of which have been overruled by consumer litigation brought by Public Citizen and other groups). Due to the recent congressional action in 2005, there remains a large unfinished agenda of vehicle safety standards that are required to be issued.

Despite minimal funding (a shoestring budget of about $227 million annually for operations and research, including only $25 million devoted to safety performance standards, in comparison to the billions of dollars being spent on national aviation security), and long delays caused by constant pressure from automakers and their friends in the White House, the payoff in lives saved and injuries avoided is impressive. To date, almost 25,000 lives have been saved by air bags, with more than 2,700 more saved each year. Safety belts are highly effective, and now with usage reaching about 80 percent, many thousands of lives are being saved each year. Child safety seats, despite frequent poor installation by well-meaning family members, have significantly reduced child passenger deaths. Other NHTSA standards such as collapsible steering columns, energy absorbing interiors, non-pop-out windshields and door locks also are saving lives and reducing injuries. 

The death rate today is 1.47 per hundred million vehicle miles traveled and the number of deaths in 2005 was 43,443, an increase of 1.4 percent over 2004 and the highest level in 15 years. But when compared to 1966, these reductions are almost a miracle. The increase in the number of passenger vehicles and drivers since 1966 is substantial, and yet both the number of deaths and the death rate have declined dramatically. NHTSA’s programs and vastly improved highways have played a large role in achieving these savings.

But there is much more to do. Highway fatalities add up to the equivalent of a plane crash a day, or the equivalent of 14 separate Sept. 11 disasters every year. In addition, there are more than 3 million injuries annually, creating an economic impact of well over $230 billion. Very important vehicle safety standards are required to be issued under the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA—LU) law, particularly for rollover crashes, rollover protection, roof crush and ejection prevention. In all, rollover crash deaths, which continue to increase, kill about 10,500 people each year and severely injure another 17,000. A large number of these deaths are needless and could be prevented with proper vehicle designs. 

Highlights of a large, unfinished agenda for NHTSA are available by clicking here. Some actions are required by law; others the agency has the authority to address but has not. All are documented ways to stem casualties, which each year far outpace the terrible losses in Iraq and Sept. 11 combined. The agency should not delay in addressing them. It should do so to maximize the saving of lives, rather than undercut the potential to do so by caving to industry pressure. If the president of Costa Rica can place highway safety on the top of his country’s agenda, we should be able to do so also.

* Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-1981.