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In Defense of the NHTSA

— March 30, 2015

In the wake of the global auto industry facing an enormous amount of recalls and legal actions, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has endured a sizeable amount of scrutiny in recent years. Some, including myself, have raised questions regarding lax testing standards, and allegations of cronyism between the agency and automakers. Given the turmoil, it is easy to overlook the massive amount of benefit the agency provides for drivers, as well as the level of responsibility required of the nation’s top automotive regulator. In addition to conducting and reporting crash-testing, aggregating data, and enforcing auto-safety standards, the agency provides consumers with perhaps the most comprehensive safety information in the world. Despite the duties required of them, including handling over 80,000 complaints, the NHTSA operated on a budget of just over $800 million in 2014, a relatively small sum in the world of federal outlays.

It is hard to argue that the agency’s efforts haven’t saved lives and worked to improve road safety in the U.S. As former NHTSA scientist Louis Lombardo wrote in a recent column, “All motorists prefer more crash testing in laboratories to the millions of crash tests occurring in the real world each year.” Due to pressures of big-business, automakers are reluctant to spend R&D money on issues that don’t provide a return on investment, therefore making the federal enforcement of safety standards a necessary counterbalance. While not overwhelming, the World Health Organization rates the U.S. in the top quartile of global traffic safety metrics, measuring both auto fatalities per 100,000 vehicles and per 100,000 people.

One of the most important things the NHTSA does to both inform consumers, and encourage automakers to focus on safety is publish its annual “Car Book” since the early 1980’s. This reference provides crash and safety ratings on every make and model available, rating them on a 1-10 scale. Although there are several consumer agencies that have modeled their publications on the NHTSA version, it is considered in the industry to be the most comprehensive source on the subject.

These actions highlight the value that the NHTSA provides even with its issues. President Obama has concurred, given the recall crisis, and he requested funding to triple the agency’s budget over a 6-year period in February. Currently under review by the Republican controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee, it remains to be seen if the proposal will gain any traction. Committee chairman, Fred Upton (R-MI), is skeptical, noting that the agency has issues that run beyond staff and funding. While there may be some truth to Upton’s point, it is important to see the bigger picture. Despite its flaws, the agency has created one of the best environments worldwide for traffic safety, as well as providing the benchmark reference source for safety-related information while wading through one of the toughest consumer crises in history, all on a marginal budget.


Sources:– Louis V. Lombardo

New York Times – Aaron M. Kessler

NHTSA Budget – John Cichowski

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