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Claybrook: DOT’s “Proactive” Safety Principles Worthless

— January 18, 2016

Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief Joan Claybrook issued a statement on Friday, January 15 criticizing the U.S. Department of Transportation’s collaboration with the auto industry on “Proactive Safety Principles.” According to Claybrook: DOT’s “Proactive” Safety Principles are worthless.

Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief Joan Claybrook issued a statement on Friday, January 15 criticizing the U.S. Department of Transportation’s collaboration with the auto industry on “Proactive Safety Principles.” According to Claybrook: DOT’s “Proactive” Safety Principles worthless.

Claybrook has a good handle on such matters, having served as head of NHTSA under former President Carter from 1977 – 1981. She also served as president of Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy group and think tank, from 1982 – 2008. She was an early advocate for vehicle airbags, fought for auto industry regulations like the 85MPH speedometer, as well as speaking out on SUV rollover issues. In short, when she speaks, we should listen.

The full text of her statement is available as a PDF. The full text of the “Principles” is available here.

Secretary Foxx, NHTSA Administrator Rosekind with automakers
Secretary Foxx, NHTSA Administrator Rosekind with automakers

She is of the opinion that the DOT’s recent collaboration is taking the agency down the wrong path. There are four principles under the collaboration that she believe are “toothless, lack[ing] any implementation authority and [are] worth only the cost of the paper they are written on.” Without any “teeth,” it becomes simple for the auto industry to either disregard or violate these four principles.

On its face, the “Principles” document looks like just what the U.S. needs to increase consumer safety as it pertains to the auto industry. Last year was a record year for recalls and automakers trying to dodge responsibility for the damage their products have done to innocent consumers.

Not so, according to Claybrook. “The safety American public will not be best protected with a kumbaya between the federal agency charged with issuing regulation and the industry seeking to avoid regulation. Also completely absent from this ‘Best Friends Forever (BFF) moment’ between DOT and the auto industry are the people NHTSA was created to protect—car users.”

The drafters of the “Principles” document seem to have forgotten that NHTSA was created with the power to regulate the industry, set motor vehicle safety standards, do research on safety issues independent from the auto industry, force the recall of vehicles determined to have safety defects or don’t comply with the safety standards and sue companies that refuse to comply. To Claybrook’s thinking, these are all powers that already exist and didn’t need a “kumbaya” moment to bring them into being.

Her concerns appear valid, based on her reading of the “Principles” document. The document places the blame for 94% of all vehicle crashes squarely on “driver choices and human error.” In other words, it’s victim blaming for product liability just as many blame rape victims for their victimization.

Yet, the document “omits the fact that most vehicle crash DEATHS and INJURIES prevented result from the improved vehicle safety performance largely based on NHTSA’s many dozens of mandatory safety standards. In fact, NHTSA estimates that over 600,000 deaths have been prevented by such safety rules since the 1960s when NHTSA was created.”

So, either U.S. drivers have become much worse over the years or the federal agencies created to protect them have become soft, malleable tools of the very industry they were created to regulate.

My money is on Claybrook’s opinion that NHTSA is giving away its power to industry.

Case in point: Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB). NHTSA, rather than bringing the hammer down and making such safety technology mandatory, is negotiating with the auto industry to create a “voluntary” standard for AEB. Think about that for a bit. It’s rather like you negotiating with your children as to whether they’re going to school.

NHTSA’s “kids” are getting to choose whether to play hooky or graduate with honors. Unless you have extraordinary children, that same choice at the family level is going to result in a lot of missed school. And, with the auto industry, you can bet this choice is going to result in no AEB systems in most vehicles.

A significant thorn in Claybrook’s side is not just that NHTSA is negotiating instead of regulating, it’s that said negotiations are being done in secret without the input of consumers and suppliers. That detail should make anyone reading this equally as unhappy as Claybrook.

Why? Letting the auto industry dictate to NHTSA in this case results in:

  • Unenforceable agreements that companies can say “Yes” to and then secretly stop compliance without telling consumers or NHTSA
  • Automakers charging extra for “optional” AEB and other safety equipment, quite often pricing it out of reach of most consumers
  • Less public confidence in NHTSA

Unlike many critics of just about any topic, Claybrook actually has some proposed solutions to what she perceives as problems with the “Principles.” These solutions are things already within the agency’s power and do not require the agreement of the auto industry.

  1. “Principle – ‘Enhance and Facilitate Proactive Safety’: NHTSA already has numerous meetings and discussions with industry representatives on a regular basis in Detroit about key safety issues, at Society of Automotive Engineers and other technical group meetings, and hears industry concerns and issues both at NHTSA meetings with individual companies and in group meetings, and at Congressional hearings.   In addition companies submit detailed comments to agency rulemaking dockets, to the Early Warning Reporting of safety defects system, and through negotiations with NHTSA over submission of information about defective vehicles.
  2. Principle – ‘Enhance Analysis and Examination of Early Warning Reporting Data’: Early Warning Reporting (EWR) can be improved by industry complying with existing federal law and filing accurate and timely reports (rather than ones designed to confuse the agency) and NHTSA enforcing this key rule and fining companies that abuse it. EWR information should also be made public and the reporting categories should be consistent with the reporting codes for consumer complaints so it can be used effectively.
  3. Principle – ‘Maximize Safety Recall Participation Rates’: The major steps companies can take to improve recalls is to conduct them on a timely basis (rather than covering them up and only publicly declaring a safety recall years later), sending strong and effective letters to consumers giving them the incentive to get their vehicles fixed (which NHTSA should monitor and enhance), and give priority to making replacement parts quickly rather than make them secondary to continued new vehicle production. Also the DOT should encourage states to not issue new license tags to any consumer who has not complied with a defect recall correction notice sent by the manufacturer.
  4. Principle – ‘Enhance Automotive Cybersecurity’: NHTSA has new authority under the FAST Act of 2015 (the highway bill) (Pub. L. 114-94) to conduct cybersecurity research with other federal agencies – not the auto industry – and should do so independently of the industry. Specifically, modal administrations of the DOT are charged with assisting in the development of cybersecurity research to “help prevent hacking, spoofing, and disruption of connected and automated transportation vehicles.”

However, it remains to be seen if NHTSA will remember it has “teeth” and step up to the challenge for which it was created. For all of us, I certainly hope it does.

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