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Miles to Go on Highway Safety

(Blackstation/Getty Images)

(Blackstation/Getty Images)

The 50th anniversary of federal auto safety regulation approaches, but there’s not much to celebrate. Signing the regulatory laws on Sept. 9, 1966, President Johnson predicted they would “cure the highway disease.”  They haven’t.

The “disease” was a deadly pandemic, and still is. The year the laws were passed, some 50,000 people were killed in crashes on American highways. In 2015, half a century later, the toll was 35,200 – a decrease, but hardly evidence of a cure. Federal regulations and safer cars have certainly lowered the toll, which is good news. But a recent National Safety Council estimate shows deaths rising again in 2016.

The auto-safety standing of the U.S. among developed nations tells a discouraging story. We rank far below other high-income countries in preventing crash deaths. According to a recent analysis by the Centers for Disease Control, this country had 10.3 crash deaths per 100,000 people in 2013, nearly twice the rate of the next-highest countries – Canada (5.4) and New Zealand (5.6).

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To be sure, other countries are less auto-dependent, which may partly explain the difference, but there are policy differences, too. For example, Sweden, with only 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people, follows a “Vision Zero” policy dictating that all transportation programs and industries give top priority to stopping traffic deaths.The policy’s watchword: “No loss of life is acceptable.”  It’s working.

Meanwhile,Washington’s auto safety regulatory apparatus is in bad shape, hobbled by a grossly inadequate budget, an auto industry that puts profit before human life, and – a new and troubling wrinkle – the commercially motivated push to put unproven self-driving vehicle technology on the roads.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency that regulates auto safety, for years has been hamstrung by lack of congressional support. In an insightful  commentary last year, Consumer Reports described NHTSA as an “underfed watchdog.’ It noted that while NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations has “a mere 50 full-time employees, responsible for monitoring the safety of more than 265 million vehicles on the road” and operates on a budget of less than $30 million, the Federal Aviation Administration’s comparable arm, the Office of Aviation Safety, had 6,408 employees in 2014 and a budget of more than $1 billion.

The auto industry’s two-faced attitude toward vehicle safety aggravates the problem. Its new-car advertising publicly boasts of safety. But a deluge of defect cover-ups over the past decade attests to the mindset of an industry that maintains a tepid attitude toward building truly safe cars and trucks.

Against that backdrop, auto makers and Silicon Valley are pushing to make self-driving cars a reality – one that could eventually be positive but that regulators, the courts and the public are hardly prepared for now. The recent fatal crash of a Tesla “autopilot” car in Florida threw a spotlight on the lethal downside of the push. NHTSA’s administrator, Mark Rosekind, says “no one incident” will impede the agency’s push for “new lifesaving technologies” such as vehicle automation.So far, though, the agency has failed to publish regulations or even non-binding guidelines for the safe development of self-driving cars, leaving a vacuum that state legislatures and industry lobbyists are rushing to fill with conflicting laws and regulations.

As former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook has warned, if there are no rules for adequately testing self-driving technology before it becomes a highway reality, motorists like the driver in the fatal Tesla “autopilot” crash will become unwitting guinea pigs in the trial-and-error evolution of automated vehicles. Unless Congress gives NHTSA the funds and authority it needs to create such a program, the future of self-driving vehicle development is likely to be chaotic and blood-stained – a long way from realizing Lyndon Johnson’s dream of a “cure for the highway disease.”

 Ben Kelley is a board member of the Center for Auto Safety, and director of injury control policy at the Trauma Foundation.