Auto Safety in the Breakdown Lane

Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.)

America’s once-vigorous commitment to stopping death and injury on our roads — one of the nation’s most severe public health problems — has become dangerously weak. With the failure of auto safety legislation in the last Congress, it appears that the public and its policymakers may no longer be interested in supporting tough measures to substantially reduce bloodshed on the highways. That is despite the fact that crashes continue to be the principal cause of fatal and severe injury to children and young adults, and one of the top 10 causes of death in every other age group.

Forty-five years ago a very different climate prevailed. Highly publicized congressional hearings were uncovering detailed evidence of widespread safety failures by auto manufacturers. Cars were being designed and sold with features that caused fatal and severe injuries in crashes — rigid spear-like steering columns, injurious interior protrusions, lack of effective restraint systems, and ejection-enhancing windshields and door locks, to name just a few. The companies’ own engineers knew how to eliminate these hazards but management wasn’t interested. The industry mantra was, “Safety Doesn’t Sell.” Lack of safety was killing and maiming people, but that didn’t figure into the profit-making calculations of the companies. Meanwhile, the highway death count had exceeded 50,000 a year.

As a result of the hearings and the intense public attention they generated, Congress in 1966 set aside partisan differences to unanimously enact the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, a groundbreaking law regulating the safety performance of motor vehicles. The industry fought tooth and nail to stop passage of the law, but clearly there was overwhelming public sentiment for federal action to eliminate deadly auto hazards. President Johnson said in support of the act that it was intended to “cure the highway disease” and “end the years of horror” caused by car crash injuries.

Since then the regulatory effort, carried out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has had a mixed record of accomplishment — one which is hardly producing the “cure for the highway disease.” On average about 40,000 people die in crashes each year, and hundreds of thousands are horribly injured (though the toll has dropped in the last couple of years, due largely to the poor economy). Doubtless motor vehicles are less hazardous today because of NHTSA’s safety regulations and defective-vehicle recalls. But frequently the agency has acquiesced to industry by weakening or delaying safety rules and hedging on recalls. For example, it took NHTSA more than 10 years to issue an effective roof crush standard to minimize injury in the all-too-common rollovers of top-heavy SUVs, pickup trucks and vans. And until recently the agency had consistently declined to find that design defects which cause cars to lose their power steering — a threat to driver control — should trigger recalls.

Nor has NHTSA shown foresight in examining emergent issues that have potential safety implications, such as the possibility of crash-causing glitches in complex automotive electronic control systems. (Independent experts believe that such malfunctions may have caused some Toyota “sudden unintended acceleration” crashes.) Instead, it has tended to let industry, whose financial and manpower resources dwarf the agency’s, take over the study of such problems, often with results that better serve the companies than the public. “Regulatory capture,” a condition well documented by students of government, occurs when regulators become overly deferential to the giant industries they are assigned to oversee, forgetting their public-interest mission in the process. It is a condition that increasingly afflicts NHTSA.

Recognizing these infirmities and spurred by the Toyota sudden acceleration mess, House and Senate committees last year reported out the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, a bill to substantially increase NHTSA’s funding and regulatory powers. But despite an urgent need for the legislation (among other things it would deal with problems like Toyota’s decade-long cover-up of the runaway car defect) it died a little-publicized death in the waning days of the last Congress after Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, an MD (you know, one of the folks who have to sew up crash-injured people), used the “hold” tactic to block its consideration. The White House failed to get behind the bill, while the auto industry’s leading trade association, joined by a roster of high-powered corporate interests, went on record as opposing it.

Hopefully the Motor Vehicle Safety Act will advance in the new Congress. If it does, the auto industry doubtless will lobby the Republican-controlled House to kill it. This means the bill would pass only if enough Republicans put public well-being ahead of narrow auto industry self-interest — as they did in 1966 — and vote in favor of it. Defying the lobbying clout of the auto industry would not be an easy step for them, but in doing so, they would demonstrate that our national commitment to “ending the highway horror” is still alive and bipartisan.

Ben Kelley is a board member of the Center for Auto Safety, and formerly held senior positions at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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2 comments to “Auto Safety in the Breakdown Lane”

  1. Louis Lombardo

    As readers consider the views of Mr. Ben Kelley and the current NHTSA Administrator David Strickland they would be wise to keep in mind the following:

    First, it is easier for NHTSA to focus on driver errors than on corporate errors and omissions in safety engineering designs. Drivers are human and make an infinite number of errors. Nader and others have taught the world that safety engineering can prevent drivers from paying for their errors with their lives and livelihoods.

    Second, for reelection, President Obama is in the process of having to raise far more than $1 Billion he raised in 2008. Under the recent Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision corporations (foreign and domestic) can spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections — and corporations do not have to disclose the amounts or the recipients.

    Third, crash deaths, injuries, and their consequences are enormous. See
    http://www.careforcrashvictims.com/CareForCrashVictims.com/Care_for_Crash_Victims_Blog/Entries/2009/9/3_110th_Anniversary_of_First_Auto_Crash_Death_in_the_U.S..html

  2. Mary Kay Kidwell

    Thank you for publishing this article. I’ve been following NHTSA for several years and have come to the same conclusion mentioned above: NHTSA is being guided by “Regulatory Capture. . . and has forgotten their public-interest mission.”

    For example, a recent NHTSA re-evaluation of vehicle submersion death statistics seems to have been conducted with a specific goal in mind: dismissing the historical data that has shown for years that aproximately 300 people drown in their vehicles each year in the US. Listing several assumptions, NHTSA has now declared that most of these victims might have been impaired and unable to escape anyway. MIGHT HAVE BEEN! The study includes other assumptions and does not include a comparative review of survivals that would give a balanced view.

    The pleas of many people who have studied vehicle submersion issues over many years have fallen on deaf ears. In fact, the recent ruling on ejection mitigation will increase entrapment deaths in order to protect occupants who do not wear seatbelts. This rulings seems to have received immediate attention because it is supported by special-interest groups.

    Public interest. That would include you and me and the hundreds of victims of vehicle entrapment who die trying to escape. These deaths are just as horrible and every bit as important as ejection fatalities. NHTSA needs to put “public interest” above “special interest.” Stay safe.

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