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Overview:

The NHTSA is the federal agency charged with regulating safety standards in the auto industry and transportation. To achieve its stated mission of reducing fatalities, injuries and costs associated with auto accidents, the NHTSA acts through research, public education and consumer protection initiatives; investigates defects and enforces manufacturer compliance with safety standards; and helps regulate other standards such as fuel economy. It deals with topics from safety defects, crash testing and accident statistics to child seats, teen driving and pedestrians.

 
The agency was founded as the result of intense public-interest advocacy, with the explicit purpose of protecting consumers through regulation of the auto industry and federal safety standards. However, over the years, and as a result of devolution, budget-slashing and a progressive leaning to industry interests, it is now accused of representing the industries it was intended to regulate.
 
more
History:

The history of auto safety in the U.S. is a disturbing story that often has pitted consumers against manufacturers, particularly since Ralph Nader brought debate about the safety and auto industry regulation into the public sphere in the mid-1960s.
 
As late as the 1940s, auto industry regulation was limited to vehicle design legislation, with little movement toward the more comprehensive regulatory system that exists today. In the late 1950s, the US refused to join or adopt measures from a growing international movement toward safety regulation beginning with the United Nations Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulation (1958), which gave way to the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) on vehicle design, construction, safety and performance.
 
But by the mid-1960s, public pressure to increase vehicle safety made the issue difficult to ignore, and influential publications, including Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, brought it to national attention. In 1965, Congress began holding high-profile hearings on auto safety, and in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed two bills that mandated certain safety features on all U.S. cars: the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the. The same year, the first Administrator was appointed to run two corresponding agencies—the National Traffic Safety Agency and the National Highway Safety Agency. Originally located in the Department of Commerce, the agencies were transferred to the Department of Transportation when it was established as a cabinet-level agency in 1969, and merged to create the NHTSA in 1970, with the new Administrator reporting directly to the Secretary of Transportation.
 
In 1972, the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act expanded the agency’s scope to include consumer/public information programs.
 
Over the next several years, the NHTSA began to work on regulations to reduce rollovers (cited in 1970 as responsible for 10,000 deaths per year) and in 1977 issued a passive restraint requirement on all vehicles: meaning automatic seatbelts or airbags were required by the 1984 model year.
 
But the 1970s also saw the auto industry take a more proactive role in trying to shape and escape requirements for Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Manufacturers convinced lawmakers to exempt light trucks (and later, minivans and SUVs) from safety requirements because they couldn’t be classified as “cars.” Critics claim this move, aided by powerful and pervasive advertising campaigns that aimed to convince the American public that light trucks were the future, offering all the benefits of passenger cars but with added space, cost thousands of entirely preventable injuries and deaths.
 
In 1981, the incoming Reagan Administration dramatically cut the agency’s budget. Under a new pro-deregulation Administrator, NHTSA began attempts to rollback passive restraint requirements, but was ruled against in a Supreme Court decision of 1983.
 
By the early 1980s, courts were finding numerous cases of manufacturers lying under oath about safety defects. According to consumer advocates, the industry was also withholding critical date from the government, using a deceptive cost/benefit analysis to sway decision-makers from spending on safety standards.
 
In 1987, NHTSA began the New Car Assessment Program, based on 35-mph crash tests, and began issuing crashworthiness ratings for new models.
 
By the 1990s, more advancements in safety regulation, such as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, which mandated in part that safety standards for cars be applied to trucks and SUVs, were tempered by the dominance of business over consumer protection. (For example: In 1994, after the government declared millions of GM pickup trucks manufactured between 1973 and 1987 to be defective, the manufacturer was offered a settlement in which it would spend $51 million on driver safety programs, but in which owners received no compensation or repairs).
The Long History of Automotive Safety (by Edward M. Ricci and Theodore J. Leopold, Ricci-Leopold)
more
What it Does:

Established by the Highway Safety Act in 1970, NHTSA is the federal agency responsible for regulating traffic and vehicle safety. Its mission to “save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs” related to road traffic accidents is approached through a three-fold strategy of public education and funding, research and safety standards, and investigations/enforcement.
 
NHTSA conducts independent crash testing of many new vehicles, including front, side, and rollover tests on trucks and SUVs, rating them according to a five-star system. Because the agency buys cars off the lot to ensure objective conditions, they can’t afford to test all vehicles, but choose representative ones.
 
The agency is also responsible for setting and monitoring fuel economy standards and investigating defects. It has been at the center of several high-profile defect cases, including the 2000 Firestone/Ford tire controversy—in which NHTSA benefited from a political climate that prompted quick response from Congress in the form of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act (PDF) of November 2000, resulting in more regulatory power and increased funding for the agency.
 
Each year NHSTA collects accident statistics and issues an exhaustive report of factors like speeding, alcohol-related accidents, injuries and fatalities, as well as funding internal studies on new safety technologies, seat belts, teen driving, child seats, etc. NHTSA also commissions studies from other bodies and makes grants for research conducted at state and city levels, and for academic and non-academic research programs.
What is NHTSA? (by Scott Memmer, Edmunds)
 
NHTSA’s Office of Defects receives consumer complaints and conducts defect investigations into possible cases of safety defect. The agency administers safety recalls and oversees the adequacy of manufacturers’ recall campaigns.
 
See “Controversy” Section for more reading on major defect and recall controversies, including Firestone/Ford and recent GM recalls.
 
 
Some notable studies:
 
 
Vehicle Safety
The National Vehicle Safety Program (NVS) conducts “research, development, testing, crash investigation, and data collection and analysis activities… [and] provides the scientific strength needed to support the Agency's motor vehicle and traffic safety goals.”
 
NCSA’s Analysis & Statistics program is created and presented based on the data collected through the division’s Crash Research programs and projects. These projects include national and State Data Program projects which focus on state-level data collection, as well as information sharing and efficiency between states and the federal government.
 
Since 2005, NCSA has published the following evaluations:
 
NCSA Regulatory Evaluation
NCSA has evaluated its major programs since NHSTA’s founding in 1970. The evaluation of the effectiveness of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) began in 1975. According to the agency, most of NHTSA's crashworthiness and several crash avoidance standards have been evaluated at least once since 1975, as have a number of consumer-oriented regulations, such as bumpers, theft protection, fuel economy and the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), as well as some technologies that were not mandatory under Federal regulations, such as antilock brake systems.

 

more
Where Does the Money Go:

Budget
Most of the Agency’s budget is spent on “driver safety,” with a small fraction allocated to “vehicle safety” and “environmental” programs like CAFE.
 
Grants

 

more
Controversies:

Raising the Roof…Strength Standards
Although less than 5% of crashes involve vehicles rolling over, rollovers account for 25% of fatalities. The current standard, which has been in place since 1971, requires a roof to withstand 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle without collapsing more than five inches of the roof. The NHTSA has proposed raising the standard to 2.5 times the weight, but Ralph Nader and others have suggested that the limit should be raised to 4 times the weight.
 
Gag Rule
In a story that would be comical but for its worrisome implications, New York Times reporter Christopher Jenson stumbled onto a gag rule at the NHTSA. Jenson broke the story when he called the agency to enquire about a technical safety issue with an expert in the field, and was informed by agency officials that he couldn’t use any information from the exchange or quote (attribute) it to the source. NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason had barred her entire staff—even the communications office—from answering reporters’ questions (officials even refused to answer Jenson’s penetrating probe, “What is the name of NHTSA’s Administrator?”). The result was that some of the world’s top auto safety experts were not allowed to share what could be crucial information with the public. Reporters who had questions about data, facts, policies, were given the option of obtaining “background information” from agency employees or with speaking on the record to an agency official, a politically appointed official like Nason, instead of an expert on the topic they were collecting information about.
 
The policy runs contrary to a history of openness and availability, in which agency experts have always freely spoken to reporters as field experts.
What’s Off the Record at N.H.T.S.A.? Almost Everything (by Christopher Jensen, New York Times)
 
Firestone and Ford Tire Controversy
Following a series of complaints of failure both in the U.S. and abroad, in May 2000 NHTSA began a defect investigation into 47 million ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires manufactured by Bridgestone/Firestone Company (BF). The agency also issued an inquiry to Ford and BF regarding the high incident of tire failure on Ford Explorers. Data obtained by Ford revealed an unusually high failure rate for the BF-manufactured 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. These models had been experiencing tread separation, especially at high speeds and in warm climates. Many of the tires in question were made at the Decatur, Illinois, plant. The failure caused many of the vehicles to roll over, resulting in serious injury and fatalities. According to the NHTSA, nearly 200 complaints were ultimately filed in regard to the tires. In a Consumer Affairs article dated December 7, 2000, the agency put “official deaths” from Firestone AT, ATX and Wilderness tires at 148. In September 2000 testimony before Congress, former NHTSA head and Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook put the death toll at “at least” 88 and 250 injured, “most of them in Ford Explorers.”
 
Exacerbating the lethal combination of BF tires and Ford Explorers, a topic of intense debate, with both manufacturers blaming the other for the defect, was the fact that Ford required a low tire inflation to counter rollover risks associated with the Explorer, which led to an increased incidence of tread separation.
 
In August of the same year, BF announced a voluntary recall of the models under investigation, which they estimated numbered about 14.4 million (total produced), 6.5 million of which would still be in use at the time of the recall.
 
Congressional investigators later found evidence that BF knew their tires had serious defects in 1996, when 8 of 18 tires pulled from production lines failed in high-speed tests (7 of which were made at the Decatur, IL plant). The Congressional inquiry led to the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act of November 2000. TREAD sought to tighten regulatory and safety mechanisms, allowing for stronger penalties, longer recall periods, more authority for regulators and enforcement, and increased funding for investigations. NHTSA was also directed to upgrade tire safety standards and improve labeling information. Warning systems for low-tire pressure, a culprit in the failures, also became mandatory.
More Firestone Tire Deaths (ConsumerAffairs.com)
 
GM Recall Controversies
Among the many defect controversies scarring GMC’s history was that of the manufacturer’s major full-size truck line in the early 1990s. The design defect was an unprotected gas tank placed outside the vehicle frame that, when struck in a side-impact crash, was prone to explosion. In 1994 then-Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena headed an investigation into the gas-tank safety defect that was causing fire-related deaths and found at least 150 fire-related deaths. The investigation also found that GM had known about the defect since the early 1970s and had failed to correct it or warn the public. GM settled for $51 million (to be spent on public safety programs, but not compensation for victims/consumers). However, GM was also hit with class-actions suits in nearly every state, which were consolidated into one of the largest automotive class action settlements in history (multi-district litigation affecting 49 states. Texas, home to more than one million of the vehicles in question, had a separate class action.
Despite Defect, G.M. Keeps Selling S.U.V. (by Danny Hakim, New York Times)
Timeline of GM recalls (Crashworthiness)
Was GM Reckless? (by Thomas McCarroll, Time)

 

more
Suggested Reforms:

Average Fuel Economy
Consumer average fuel economy (CAFE) was first enacted by Congress in 1975 to reduce energy consumption by increasing fuel economy standards of cars and light trucks. NHTSA sets fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks sold in the U.S., while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates average fuel economy for each manufacturer.
 
Passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2007, the new CAFE law will require auto manufacturers to boost their required average fuel economy by nearly 40%, to 35 mpg by 2020. How the new standards are met is left up to the manufacturers themselves, while NHTSA is charged with verification and enforcement.
 
The new CAFE includes the following changes, relative to its predecessor: Under the new regulations, companies whose fleets exceed fuel economy standards for any given year are awarded credits, which they can then sell to competitors who didn’t meet the year’s standard (under current regulations they are allowed credits, but not permitted to sell them); the new law also directs NTHSA to formulate fuel economy rules for medium and heavy-duty trucks, as well as SUVS.
 
Under new regulations, manufacturers will have the choice of complying with standards established under either the traditional system (Unreformed CAFE) or the Reformed CAFE system, during a transition period between Model Years (MYs) 2008-2010. In MY 2011, all manufacturers will be required to comply with the Reformed CAFE standard. Under Reformed CAFE, the agency is setting standards based on “vehicle footprint” (a measurement based on the wheelbase multiplied by the average track width in square feet).
 
Additionally, in MY 2011, the agency is requiring medium-duty passenger vehicles
(MDPVs) to meet fuel economy standards for the first time.
 
Senate Panel Slams Bush Fuel Economy Plan (by J.R. Pegg, Environmental News Service)
Final Regulatory Impact Analysis: Corporate Average Fuel Economy and Cafe Reform for my 2008-2011 Light Trucks (Office of Regulatory Analysis and Evaluation, National Center for Statistics and Analysis) (PDF)
Fact Sheet: CAFE Reform for Passenger Cars (White House Press Release)
 
Electronic Stability Control (ESC)
ESC is a computer sensor device that helps drivers keep vehicles under control and on their intended path during turns, helping avoid skidding and sliding, and the rollover crashes frequently associated with SUVs and light trucks. According to Consumer Reports, the NHTSA estimates that ESC will save between 5,300-9,600 lives, and prevent between 168,000 and 238,000 injuries per year. More specifically, it expects the technology to prevent between 4,200 and 5,500 rollover deaths each year.

 

more
Debate:

It can be argued that, through new technological challenges, changing demographic conditions and policy storms, the agency has managed to exert a tremendous influence on auto safety, contributing to a significant decline in accident rates, improved safety regulations, and increased information for consumers. Accident, fatality and injury rates are all far below those current at the time of the agency’s founding. 
 
On the other hand, Ralph Nader, who was extremely influential in catalyzing federal regulation of the auto industry and safety standards in the 1960s, has likened the agency to nothing more than a “consulting agency to Detroit,” and pronounces regulation officially dead: “From being a national safety watchdog, garnering front page news coverage, NHTSA became an expendable agency, headed by political hacks or cowed directors.” Most standards, he notes, were issued under Presidents Johnson and Carter, and in the time since, through Republican deregulation or Clinton-era passivity, the agency has lapsed into a “comatose” state:
“During this period of near inaction, millions of vehicles were not recalled for known defects. NHTSA preferred ‘voluntary compliance,’ another phrase for ‘leave it up to the auto companies.’ Practical innovations by creative auto suppliers were left on the shelves, snubbed by Detroit. Members of the expert teams at NHTSA started to leave the agency, including its excellent fuel efficiency group of engineers and scientists and its talented chief scientist, Dr. Carl Clark - an air bag pioneer.” (Nader 2006)
A Few Dollars Short, A Few Years Late: Why auto collisions are no accident (by Edward M. Ricci and Robert V. Pautsch, Ricci Leopold)
 
Black Boxes/Event Data Recorders
Is your car spying on you? (by Robert Vamosi, CNET)
Black Box Rule Ignites Hot Debate (by Joe Benton, ConsumerAffairs.com)

 

more
Former Directors:

 
Joan Claybrook, NHTA Administrator under the Carter Administration ( 1977-1981) has been the President of the public advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, Public Citizen. Both during her tenure as Administrator and after leaving the organization, Claybrook has been an influential voice in auto and traffic safety regulation. She is among the most prominent of progressive critics of NHTSA policies.

 

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See all 15 comments

Comments

Gary 4 weeks ago
I had a car problem like GM is now having with a new 2011 Kia Sornatro. I would make a left turn with on coming traffic and all of a sudden the car would die. I would pump the gas over and over then all of a sudden as the car tried to leave the intersection it would all sudden start without touching the key. This happened three time with a full tank of fuel. The vehicle had less then 12 k miles. The dealer could never find anything. So out of fear I traded it off. I don't know if you have had any complaints or just mine. This has been on my mind sense the GM problems. Thanks Gary Hulsey
sue lange 5 months ago
I get safety but I wish we could stop with "one size fits all". Head restraints today are impossible. Nevermind the discomfort of shoving my chin into my chest. I am 4'8" and I CAN NOT see over these monster blocks of solid cloth. That has to be 10 times more 'unsafe' than just removing them, which is what I am forced to do. Everyone in our nation is NOT 6' tall; moreover as the baby boomers age and arthritis sets in, contorting the body to look over the shoulder is not going to be easy for anyone of any size. Depending on the 'rear camera' is a mistake, as the legal jargon on each so-equipped display screen tell you in plain english. "Adjustable" is a joke. You need to be able to see clearly. I'm not suggesting we do away with them, I'm suggesting they be a lower profile and fully adjustable, and whenever possible, HOLLOWED OUT for visibility through them. If the top or bottom of the cushion hits the back of your head, that is as good as it's ever going to get. You do not need to be wrapped in it. Small car, large car, domestic, or foreign, I've rented them all and I will never ever trade or sell my 2001 Toyota because I can't stand today's head restraints in any make or model I've tested to date. I'm tired of the intrusion that continues to make my life unbearable and in may cases impossible. Pretty soon I will have to apply for disability because my size makes it impossible to drive today's vehicles.
Howard 10 months ago
Hyundai has not managed to deliver new front axle parts to its dealerships due to the recall for 6 weeks. So my wife has to drive a car where the front axle could break and kill her so Hyundai could find some cheap source for the part. I will NEVER buy a Hyundai again
lois 1 year ago
HELP....WARNING. WARNING WARNING.....I own a 1997 Chevrolet Camaro which I purchased brand new and has never been driven in the winter and is awesome shape. Here is my problem....I just had my car in to a mechanic for repairs and inspection. I explained that I had a problem with turn signal bulbs blowing out a lot. The mechanical pulled the sockets and wiring out and HOLY COW. I am lucky that I was not burn't alive in this car. I starting doing research and found that a lot of Camaro owners are having the same problem. GM short cutted the manufacture process and overloaded the wiring which was meant for one function and manufactured it to perform multi function...the turn signals, the DRLs and the side markers overload the wiring and ultimately MELTING THE BULB SOCKETS! I am so pissed I can not even begin to explain! I called GM and long story short. They refuse to pay for the repair and more importantly they refuse to issue a technical bulletin to warn other Camaro owners of the potential fire hazard! I was told my a "20" something little girl that there is no hazard and they do not intend on warning anyone!
Jeffrey Kiger 1 year ago
I just wanted to reiterate that G.M. is a bunch of thieves and criminals that has stolen from their share holders an the tax payers. They make trucks that are designed to rot out in an unsafe manner and they must be paying the NTSB off to keep their executives out of prison.
Jeffrey Kiger 1 year ago
I have a 94 Chevy pick with less than 150,000 miles. I notice many years ago the motor fan started hitting the shroud. I continued to get worse until the problem was frightening. I finally noticed the lines on the cab and bed were not properly aligned. The cab lines were over 1/2" lower than the bed. I finally crawled under the truck and discovered that all the frame brackets that mount the rubber cab bushings had rusted through and the cab had basically fallen down onto the frame rails. I have since noticed that virtually all of these trucks of this style and general vintage have this problem. I believe this is a safety issue and a design flaw that is inexcusable and should never happen. I have seen vehicles recalled for little oil leaks and shifter cable failures but those pale in comparison to the body becoming loose from the frame, regardless of age. This like a lot of other defects that G.M. makes on a vehicle year after year, and make no effort to change, improve, or correct is plainly criminal and unacceptable. They need to step up to this engineered failure and make restitution to all of us involved. There is no acceptable excuse for this type of safety issue today with the testing that these vehicles are put through, and there is no doubt that there were plenty of this style of vehicle that proceeded mine that they had to have detected this problem, but simply chose to ignore it and put the consumer at risk. You need to fully investigate the test records, from this era of trucks, and I have no doubt that you will find that they are totally guilty of negligence regarding this problem and made no attempt to correct it so that consumers like me would get the full and reasonable expected life from these vehicles. Thank you in advance for reviewing this unacceptable safety violation. There is no excuse for G.M. consistently making these rust bucket pieces of crap. Famous saying: You can keep them running almost forever. Too bad there such a rust bucket piece of s***. Thanks, Jeff
Scott Falkner 1 year ago
With a lot of emphasis on tire pressure to help with mpg and safety it would be nice if you could read the recomended psi on a tire. Tire manufactures make it too small, looks like they could make it as large as the other lettering on the tire.
Jack 2 years ago
it is nice to see that such efforts are being put in order to reduce the accidents that happen during driving. there is a need to enforce the laws in a more stringent way to make sure that there isn’t any trespassing. http://www.usedtrucksdepot.com
Gerald Parker 2 years ago
i would like to suggest that dot, consider banning halogen headlights for highway vehicles. the extremely, bright, blue-white light can potentially be the cause of severe accidents, in that they blind the traffic they are meeting. even when a car with halogen lights is using them in daylight, they are so bright that it is like looking at a welders arc, and that can cause permanent visual issues. i'm sure that the number of autos with halogen lights is relatively small, in comp...
Q.B. Gray 2 years ago
i just bought a 35 foot motor home built by coachmen and am having handling problems with it wandering over the road. on talking with coachmen and ford who made the chassis, i am of the opinion, the coach was designed with too much weight on the rear axel compared to the front axel which causes the coach to wander over the road when driving. i feel this is a safety hazard and could very easily cause a turn over. does anyone in this agency deal with motor homes that i could...

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Founded: 1970
Annual Budget: $851 million
Employees:
Official Website: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Strickland, David
Administrator

After failing to gain political support for the nomination of Charles “Chuck” Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), President Barack Obama turned to congressional aide David L. Strickland, whose announcement did not prompt any concerns from Republicans or Democrats. He was confirmed by the Senate December 24, 2009.

 
Strickland, 41, attended college at Northwestern University, where he earned his Bachelor of Science in communication studies and political science in 1990. He received his law degree from Harvard in 1993.
 
Strickland spent the past eight years on the staff of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the committee that confirmed his nomination as NHTSA administrator. As the senior counsel for the Consumer Protection Subcommittee, he was the lead staff person for the oversight of the NHTSA, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
 
He also has served as the lead Senate staff person in the formulation of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy reforms and standards included in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and in a staff leadership role in the reauthorization of the NHTSA in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005. Strickland is credited with playing a major role in pressing environmental rules long fought by the auto industry, and helping to write auto safety legislation and the “Do Not Call” registry law.
 
Strickland is married; he and his wife Robin do not have children.
 
Obama Picks Senate Aide as NHTSA Chief (by David Shepardson, Detroit News)
more
Kelly, David
Acting Administrator

 David Kelly took over as Acting Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after the August 29, 2008, resignation of administrator Nicole Nason. President Bush officially nominated Kelly to be NHTSA administrator on September 2, 2008. Kelly was a member of the staff of the National Safety Council from 1996 to 2003 and was program manager and Director of the Council’s Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign. He also held leadership positions with Mothers Against Drunk Diving. Kelly held the position of deputy assistant secretary for government affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, prior to his appointment as acting administrator, was the chief of staff at NHTSA, managing the agency’s daily operations.

 
more
Bookmark and Share
Overview:

The NHTSA is the federal agency charged with regulating safety standards in the auto industry and transportation. To achieve its stated mission of reducing fatalities, injuries and costs associated with auto accidents, the NHTSA acts through research, public education and consumer protection initiatives; investigates defects and enforces manufacturer compliance with safety standards; and helps regulate other standards such as fuel economy. It deals with topics from safety defects, crash testing and accident statistics to child seats, teen driving and pedestrians.

 
The agency was founded as the result of intense public-interest advocacy, with the explicit purpose of protecting consumers through regulation of the auto industry and federal safety standards. However, over the years, and as a result of devolution, budget-slashing and a progressive leaning to industry interests, it is now accused of representing the industries it was intended to regulate.
 
more
History:

The history of auto safety in the U.S. is a disturbing story that often has pitted consumers against manufacturers, particularly since Ralph Nader brought debate about the safety and auto industry regulation into the public sphere in the mid-1960s.
 
As late as the 1940s, auto industry regulation was limited to vehicle design legislation, with little movement toward the more comprehensive regulatory system that exists today. In the late 1950s, the US refused to join or adopt measures from a growing international movement toward safety regulation beginning with the United Nations Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulation (1958), which gave way to the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) on vehicle design, construction, safety and performance.
 
But by the mid-1960s, public pressure to increase vehicle safety made the issue difficult to ignore, and influential publications, including Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, brought it to national attention. In 1965, Congress began holding high-profile hearings on auto safety, and in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed two bills that mandated certain safety features on all U.S. cars: the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the. The same year, the first Administrator was appointed to run two corresponding agencies—the National Traffic Safety Agency and the National Highway Safety Agency. Originally located in the Department of Commerce, the agencies were transferred to the Department of Transportation when it was established as a cabinet-level agency in 1969, and merged to create the NHTSA in 1970, with the new Administrator reporting directly to the Secretary of Transportation.
 
In 1972, the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act expanded the agency’s scope to include consumer/public information programs.
 
Over the next several years, the NHTSA began to work on regulations to reduce rollovers (cited in 1970 as responsible for 10,000 deaths per year) and in 1977 issued a passive restraint requirement on all vehicles: meaning automatic seatbelts or airbags were required by the 1984 model year.
 
But the 1970s also saw the auto industry take a more proactive role in trying to shape and escape requirements for Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Manufacturers convinced lawmakers to exempt light trucks (and later, minivans and SUVs) from safety requirements because they couldn’t be classified as “cars.” Critics claim this move, aided by powerful and pervasive advertising campaigns that aimed to convince the American public that light trucks were the future, offering all the benefits of passenger cars but with added space, cost thousands of entirely preventable injuries and deaths.
 
In 1981, the incoming Reagan Administration dramatically cut the agency’s budget. Under a new pro-deregulation Administrator, NHTSA began attempts to rollback passive restraint requirements, but was ruled against in a Supreme Court decision of 1983.
 
By the early 1980s, courts were finding numerous cases of manufacturers lying under oath about safety defects. According to consumer advocates, the industry was also withholding critical date from the government, using a deceptive cost/benefit analysis to sway decision-makers from spending on safety standards.
 
In 1987, NHTSA began the New Car Assessment Program, based on 35-mph crash tests, and began issuing crashworthiness ratings for new models.
 
By the 1990s, more advancements in safety regulation, such as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, which mandated in part that safety standards for cars be applied to trucks and SUVs, were tempered by the dominance of business over consumer protection. (For example: In 1994, after the government declared millions of GM pickup trucks manufactured between 1973 and 1987 to be defective, the manufacturer was offered a settlement in which it would spend $51 million on driver safety programs, but in which owners received no compensation or repairs).
The Long History of Automotive Safety (by Edward M. Ricci and Theodore J. Leopold, Ricci-Leopold)
more
What it Does:

Established by the Highway Safety Act in 1970, NHTSA is the federal agency responsible for regulating traffic and vehicle safety. Its mission to “save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs” related to road traffic accidents is approached through a three-fold strategy of public education and funding, research and safety standards, and investigations/enforcement.
 
NHTSA conducts independent crash testing of many new vehicles, including front, side, and rollover tests on trucks and SUVs, rating them according to a five-star system. Because the agency buys cars off the lot to ensure objective conditions, they can’t afford to test all vehicles, but choose representative ones.
 
The agency is also responsible for setting and monitoring fuel economy standards and investigating defects. It has been at the center of several high-profile defect cases, including the 2000 Firestone/Ford tire controversy—in which NHTSA benefited from a political climate that prompted quick response from Congress in the form of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act (PDF) of November 2000, resulting in more regulatory power and increased funding for the agency.
 
Each year NHSTA collects accident statistics and issues an exhaustive report of factors like speeding, alcohol-related accidents, injuries and fatalities, as well as funding internal studies on new safety technologies, seat belts, teen driving, child seats, etc. NHTSA also commissions studies from other bodies and makes grants for research conducted at state and city levels, and for academic and non-academic research programs.
What is NHTSA? (by Scott Memmer, Edmunds)
 
NHTSA’s Office of Defects receives consumer complaints and conducts defect investigations into possible cases of safety defect. The agency administers safety recalls and oversees the adequacy of manufacturers’ recall campaigns.
 
See “Controversy” Section for more reading on major defect and recall controversies, including Firestone/Ford and recent GM recalls.
 
 
Some notable studies:
 
 
Vehicle Safety
The National Vehicle Safety Program (NVS) conducts “research, development, testing, crash investigation, and data collection and analysis activities… [and] provides the scientific strength needed to support the Agency's motor vehicle and traffic safety goals.”
 
NCSA’s Analysis & Statistics program is created and presented based on the data collected through the division’s Crash Research programs and projects. These projects include national and State Data Program projects which focus on state-level data collection, as well as information sharing and efficiency between states and the federal government.
 
Since 2005, NCSA has published the following evaluations:
 
NCSA Regulatory Evaluation
NCSA has evaluated its major programs since NHSTA’s founding in 1970. The evaluation of the effectiveness of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) began in 1975. According to the agency, most of NHTSA's crashworthiness and several crash avoidance standards have been evaluated at least once since 1975, as have a number of consumer-oriented regulations, such as bumpers, theft protection, fuel economy and the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), as well as some technologies that were not mandatory under Federal regulations, such as antilock brake systems.

 

more
Where Does the Money Go:

Budget
Most of the Agency’s budget is spent on “driver safety,” with a small fraction allocated to “vehicle safety” and “environmental” programs like CAFE.
 
Grants

 

more
Controversies:

Raising the Roof…Strength Standards
Although less than 5% of crashes involve vehicles rolling over, rollovers account for 25% of fatalities. The current standard, which has been in place since 1971, requires a roof to withstand 1.5 times the weight of the vehicle without collapsing more than five inches of the roof. The NHTSA has proposed raising the standard to 2.5 times the weight, but Ralph Nader and others have suggested that the limit should be raised to 4 times the weight.
 
Gag Rule
In a story that would be comical but for its worrisome implications, New York Times reporter Christopher Jenson stumbled onto a gag rule at the NHTSA. Jenson broke the story when he called the agency to enquire about a technical safety issue with an expert in the field, and was informed by agency officials that he couldn’t use any information from the exchange or quote (attribute) it to the source. NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason had barred her entire staff—even the communications office—from answering reporters’ questions (officials even refused to answer Jenson’s penetrating probe, “What is the name of NHTSA’s Administrator?”). The result was that some of the world’s top auto safety experts were not allowed to share what could be crucial information with the public. Reporters who had questions about data, facts, policies, were given the option of obtaining “background information” from agency employees or with speaking on the record to an agency official, a politically appointed official like Nason, instead of an expert on the topic they were collecting information about.
 
The policy runs contrary to a history of openness and availability, in which agency experts have always freely spoken to reporters as field experts.
What’s Off the Record at N.H.T.S.A.? Almost Everything (by Christopher Jensen, New York Times)
 
Firestone and Ford Tire Controversy
Following a series of complaints of failure both in the U.S. and abroad, in May 2000 NHTSA began a defect investigation into 47 million ATX, ATX II, and Wilderness AT tires manufactured by Bridgestone/Firestone Company (BF). The agency also issued an inquiry to Ford and BF regarding the high incident of tire failure on Ford Explorers. Data obtained by Ford revealed an unusually high failure rate for the BF-manufactured 15-inch ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT tires. These models had been experiencing tread separation, especially at high speeds and in warm climates. Many of the tires in question were made at the Decatur, Illinois, plant. The failure caused many of the vehicles to roll over, resulting in serious injury and fatalities. According to the NHTSA, nearly 200 complaints were ultimately filed in regard to the tires. In a Consumer Affairs article dated December 7, 2000, the agency put “official deaths” from Firestone AT, ATX and Wilderness tires at 148. In September 2000 testimony before Congress, former NHTSA head and Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook put the death toll at “at least” 88 and 250 injured, “most of them in Ford Explorers.”
 
Exacerbating the lethal combination of BF tires and Ford Explorers, a topic of intense debate, with both manufacturers blaming the other for the defect, was the fact that Ford required a low tire inflation to counter rollover risks associated with the Explorer, which led to an increased incidence of tread separation.
 
In August of the same year, BF announced a voluntary recall of the models under investigation, which they estimated numbered about 14.4 million (total produced), 6.5 million of which would still be in use at the time of the recall.
 
Congressional investigators later found evidence that BF knew their tires had serious defects in 1996, when 8 of 18 tires pulled from production lines failed in high-speed tests (7 of which were made at the Decatur, IL plant). The Congressional inquiry led to the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act of November 2000. TREAD sought to tighten regulatory and safety mechanisms, allowing for stronger penalties, longer recall periods, more authority for regulators and enforcement, and increased funding for investigations. NHTSA was also directed to upgrade tire safety standards and improve labeling information. Warning systems for low-tire pressure, a culprit in the failures, also became mandatory.
More Firestone Tire Deaths (ConsumerAffairs.com)
 
GM Recall Controversies
Among the many defect controversies scarring GMC’s history was that of the manufacturer’s major full-size truck line in the early 1990s. The design defect was an unprotected gas tank placed outside the vehicle frame that, when struck in a side-impact crash, was prone to explosion. In 1994 then-Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena headed an investigation into the gas-tank safety defect that was causing fire-related deaths and found at least 150 fire-related deaths. The investigation also found that GM had known about the defect since the early 1970s and had failed to correct it or warn the public. GM settled for $51 million (to be spent on public safety programs, but not compensation for victims/consumers). However, GM was also hit with class-actions suits in nearly every state, which were consolidated into one of the largest automotive class action settlements in history (multi-district litigation affecting 49 states. Texas, home to more than one million of the vehicles in question, had a separate class action.
Despite Defect, G.M. Keeps Selling S.U.V. (by Danny Hakim, New York Times)
Timeline of GM recalls (Crashworthiness)
Was GM Reckless? (by Thomas McCarroll, Time)

 

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Suggested Reforms:

Average Fuel Economy
Consumer average fuel economy (CAFE) was first enacted by Congress in 1975 to reduce energy consumption by increasing fuel economy standards of cars and light trucks. NHTSA sets fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks sold in the U.S., while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates average fuel economy for each manufacturer.
 
Passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2007, the new CAFE law will require auto manufacturers to boost their required average fuel economy by nearly 40%, to 35 mpg by 2020. How the new standards are met is left up to the manufacturers themselves, while NHTSA is charged with verification and enforcement.
 
The new CAFE includes the following changes, relative to its predecessor: Under the new regulations, companies whose fleets exceed fuel economy standards for any given year are awarded credits, which they can then sell to competitors who didn’t meet the year’s standard (under current regulations they are allowed credits, but not permitted to sell them); the new law also directs NTHSA to formulate fuel economy rules for medium and heavy-duty trucks, as well as SUVS.
 
Under new regulations, manufacturers will have the choice of complying with standards established under either the traditional system (Unreformed CAFE) or the Reformed CAFE system, during a transition period between Model Years (MYs) 2008-2010. In MY 2011, all manufacturers will be required to comply with the Reformed CAFE standard. Under Reformed CAFE, the agency is setting standards based on “vehicle footprint” (a measurement based on the wheelbase multiplied by the average track width in square feet).
 
Additionally, in MY 2011, the agency is requiring medium-duty passenger vehicles
(MDPVs) to meet fuel economy standards for the first time.
 
Senate Panel Slams Bush Fuel Economy Plan (by J.R. Pegg, Environmental News Service)
Final Regulatory Impact Analysis: Corporate Average Fuel Economy and Cafe Reform for my 2008-2011 Light Trucks (Office of Regulatory Analysis and Evaluation, National Center for Statistics and Analysis) (PDF)
Fact Sheet: CAFE Reform for Passenger Cars (White House Press Release)
 
Electronic Stability Control (ESC)
ESC is a computer sensor device that helps drivers keep vehicles under control and on their intended path during turns, helping avoid skidding and sliding, and the rollover crashes frequently associated with SUVs and light trucks. According to Consumer Reports, the NHTSA estimates that ESC will save between 5,300-9,600 lives, and prevent between 168,000 and 238,000 injuries per year. More specifically, it expects the technology to prevent between 4,200 and 5,500 rollover deaths each year.

 

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Debate:

It can be argued that, through new technological challenges, changing demographic conditions and policy storms, the agency has managed to exert a tremendous influence on auto safety, contributing to a significant decline in accident rates, improved safety regulations, and increased information for consumers. Accident, fatality and injury rates are all far below those current at the time of the agency’s founding. 
 
On the other hand, Ralph Nader, who was extremely influential in catalyzing federal regulation of the auto industry and safety standards in the 1960s, has likened the agency to nothing more than a “consulting agency to Detroit,” and pronounces regulation officially dead: “From being a national safety watchdog, garnering front page news coverage, NHTSA became an expendable agency, headed by political hacks or cowed directors.” Most standards, he notes, were issued under Presidents Johnson and Carter, and in the time since, through Republican deregulation or Clinton-era passivity, the agency has lapsed into a “comatose” state:
“During this period of near inaction, millions of vehicles were not recalled for known defects. NHTSA preferred ‘voluntary compliance,’ another phrase for ‘leave it up to the auto companies.’ Practical innovations by creative auto suppliers were left on the shelves, snubbed by Detroit. Members of the expert teams at NHTSA started to leave the agency, including its excellent fuel efficiency group of engineers and scientists and its talented chief scientist, Dr. Carl Clark - an air bag pioneer.” (Nader 2006)
A Few Dollars Short, A Few Years Late: Why auto collisions are no accident (by Edward M. Ricci and Robert V. Pautsch, Ricci Leopold)
 
Black Boxes/Event Data Recorders
Is your car spying on you? (by Robert Vamosi, CNET)
Black Box Rule Ignites Hot Debate (by Joe Benton, ConsumerAffairs.com)

 

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Former Directors:

 
Joan Claybrook, NHTA Administrator under the Carter Administration ( 1977-1981) has been the President of the public advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, Public Citizen. Both during her tenure as Administrator and after leaving the organization, Claybrook has been an influential voice in auto and traffic safety regulation. She is among the most prominent of progressive critics of NHTSA policies.

 

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Comments

Gary 4 weeks ago
I had a car problem like GM is now having with a new 2011 Kia Sornatro. I would make a left turn with on coming traffic and all of a sudden the car would die. I would pump the gas over and over then all of a sudden as the car tried to leave the intersection it would all sudden start without touching the key. This happened three time with a full tank of fuel. The vehicle had less then 12 k miles. The dealer could never find anything. So out of fear I traded it off. I don't know if you have had any complaints or just mine. This has been on my mind sense the GM problems. Thanks Gary Hulsey
sue lange 5 months ago
I get safety but I wish we could stop with "one size fits all". Head restraints today are impossible. Nevermind the discomfort of shoving my chin into my chest. I am 4'8" and I CAN NOT see over these monster blocks of solid cloth. That has to be 10 times more 'unsafe' than just removing them, which is what I am forced to do. Everyone in our nation is NOT 6' tall; moreover as the baby boomers age and arthritis sets in, contorting the body to look over the shoulder is not going to be easy for anyone of any size. Depending on the 'rear camera' is a mistake, as the legal jargon on each so-equipped display screen tell you in plain english. "Adjustable" is a joke. You need to be able to see clearly. I'm not suggesting we do away with them, I'm suggesting they be a lower profile and fully adjustable, and whenever possible, HOLLOWED OUT for visibility through them. If the top or bottom of the cushion hits the back of your head, that is as good as it's ever going to get. You do not need to be wrapped in it. Small car, large car, domestic, or foreign, I've rented them all and I will never ever trade or sell my 2001 Toyota because I can't stand today's head restraints in any make or model I've tested to date. I'm tired of the intrusion that continues to make my life unbearable and in may cases impossible. Pretty soon I will have to apply for disability because my size makes it impossible to drive today's vehicles.
Howard 10 months ago
Hyundai has not managed to deliver new front axle parts to its dealerships due to the recall for 6 weeks. So my wife has to drive a car where the front axle could break and kill her so Hyundai could find some cheap source for the part. I will NEVER buy a Hyundai again
lois 1 year ago
HELP....WARNING. WARNING WARNING.....I own a 1997 Chevrolet Camaro which I purchased brand new and has never been driven in the winter and is awesome shape. Here is my problem....I just had my car in to a mechanic for repairs and inspection. I explained that I had a problem with turn signal bulbs blowing out a lot. The mechanical pulled the sockets and wiring out and HOLY COW. I am lucky that I was not burn't alive in this car. I starting doing research and found that a lot of Camaro owners are having the same problem. GM short cutted the manufacture process and overloaded the wiring which was meant for one function and manufactured it to perform multi function...the turn signals, the DRLs and the side markers overload the wiring and ultimately MELTING THE BULB SOCKETS! I am so pissed I can not even begin to explain! I called GM and long story short. They refuse to pay for the repair and more importantly they refuse to issue a technical bulletin to warn other Camaro owners of the potential fire hazard! I was told my a "20" something little girl that there is no hazard and they do not intend on warning anyone!
Jeffrey Kiger 1 year ago
I just wanted to reiterate that G.M. is a bunch of thieves and criminals that has stolen from their share holders an the tax payers. They make trucks that are designed to rot out in an unsafe manner and they must be paying the NTSB off to keep their executives out of prison.
Jeffrey Kiger 1 year ago
I have a 94 Chevy pick with less than 150,000 miles. I notice many years ago the motor fan started hitting the shroud. I continued to get worse until the problem was frightening. I finally noticed the lines on the cab and bed were not properly aligned. The cab lines were over 1/2" lower than the bed. I finally crawled under the truck and discovered that all the frame brackets that mount the rubber cab bushings had rusted through and the cab had basically fallen down onto the frame rails. I have since noticed that virtually all of these trucks of this style and general vintage have this problem. I believe this is a safety issue and a design flaw that is inexcusable and should never happen. I have seen vehicles recalled for little oil leaks and shifter cable failures but those pale in comparison to the body becoming loose from the frame, regardless of age. This like a lot of other defects that G.M. makes on a vehicle year after year, and make no effort to change, improve, or correct is plainly criminal and unacceptable. They need to step up to this engineered failure and make restitution to all of us involved. There is no acceptable excuse for this type of safety issue today with the testing that these vehicles are put through, and there is no doubt that there were plenty of this style of vehicle that proceeded mine that they had to have detected this problem, but simply chose to ignore it and put the consumer at risk. You need to fully investigate the test records, from this era of trucks, and I have no doubt that you will find that they are totally guilty of negligence regarding this problem and made no attempt to correct it so that consumers like me would get the full and reasonable expected life from these vehicles. Thank you in advance for reviewing this unacceptable safety violation. There is no excuse for G.M. consistently making these rust bucket pieces of crap. Famous saying: You can keep them running almost forever. Too bad there such a rust bucket piece of s***. Thanks, Jeff
Scott Falkner 1 year ago
With a lot of emphasis on tire pressure to help with mpg and safety it would be nice if you could read the recomended psi on a tire. Tire manufactures make it too small, looks like they could make it as large as the other lettering on the tire.
Jack 2 years ago
it is nice to see that such efforts are being put in order to reduce the accidents that happen during driving. there is a need to enforce the laws in a more stringent way to make sure that there isn’t any trespassing. http://www.usedtrucksdepot.com
Gerald Parker 2 years ago
i would like to suggest that dot, consider banning halogen headlights for highway vehicles. the extremely, bright, blue-white light can potentially be the cause of severe accidents, in that they blind the traffic they are meeting. even when a car with halogen lights is using them in daylight, they are so bright that it is like looking at a welders arc, and that can cause permanent visual issues. i'm sure that the number of autos with halogen lights is relatively small, in comp...
Q.B. Gray 2 years ago
i just bought a 35 foot motor home built by coachmen and am having handling problems with it wandering over the road. on talking with coachmen and ford who made the chassis, i am of the opinion, the coach was designed with too much weight on the rear axel compared to the front axel which causes the coach to wander over the road when driving. i feel this is a safety hazard and could very easily cause a turn over. does anyone in this agency deal with motor homes that i could...

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Founded: 1970
Annual Budget: $851 million
Employees:
Official Website: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Strickland, David
Administrator

After failing to gain political support for the nomination of Charles “Chuck” Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), President Barack Obama turned to congressional aide David L. Strickland, whose announcement did not prompt any concerns from Republicans or Democrats. He was confirmed by the Senate December 24, 2009.

 
Strickland, 41, attended college at Northwestern University, where he earned his Bachelor of Science in communication studies and political science in 1990. He received his law degree from Harvard in 1993.
 
Strickland spent the past eight years on the staff of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the committee that confirmed his nomination as NHTSA administrator. As the senior counsel for the Consumer Protection Subcommittee, he was the lead staff person for the oversight of the NHTSA, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
 
He also has served as the lead Senate staff person in the formulation of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy reforms and standards included in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and in a staff leadership role in the reauthorization of the NHTSA in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2005. Strickland is credited with playing a major role in pressing environmental rules long fought by the auto industry, and helping to write auto safety legislation and the “Do Not Call” registry law.
 
Strickland is married; he and his wife Robin do not have children.
 
Obama Picks Senate Aide as NHTSA Chief (by David Shepardson, Detroit News)
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Kelly, David
Acting Administrator

 David Kelly took over as Acting Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after the August 29, 2008, resignation of administrator Nicole Nason. President Bush officially nominated Kelly to be NHTSA administrator on September 2, 2008. Kelly was a member of the staff of the National Safety Council from 1996 to 2003 and was program manager and Director of the Council’s Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign. He also held leadership positions with Mothers Against Drunk Diving. Kelly held the position of deputy assistant secretary for government affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, prior to his appointment as acting administrator, was the chief of staff at NHTSA, managing the agency’s daily operations.

 
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