NHTSA's First Year Under Obama: Stuck in Neutral

James Goodwin

Jan. 25, 2010

This post is the fifth in a series on the new CPR report Obama’s Regulators: A First-Year Report Card.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) progress on its statutory mission of reducing traffic fatalities came to a screeching halt in recent years, making it imperative that the Obama Administration work quickly to get this vital protector agency back into gear. Unfortunately, NHTSA coasted through part of the year, when it should have its foot on the gas. While it made some progress, it has not yet launched an affirmative agenda of its own to ensure future progress on its statutory mission.

At first blush, it might appear that President Obama succeeded in revitalizing NHTSA this past year. After all, the agency did take several important protective actions. A closer examination, though, reveals that most of NHTSA’s regulatory accomplishments could be characterized as low-hanging fruit. In many cases, the agency did not do much more than finalize rules that the Bush Administration had been working on and that were due out anyway. Of course, that’s not to say that these finalized rules will not help NHTSA to achieve its mission of reducing traffic fatalities. For example, NHTSA finalized a rule that will strengthen roof standards for most types of cars. This is particularly important because it will help reduce the fatalities and severe injuries that result from rollover crashes—one of the leading contributors to traffic-related fatalities and injuries. The rule doubles the required roof strength standard for passenger vehicles and establishes the first ever roof strength standards for full-sized pickups and SUVs. These roof strength standards are less stringent than the ones for passenger vehicles, which is unfortunate given that pickups and SUVs are so much more susceptible to rollover crashes. Significantly, the standards in the rule are based on a two-sided test, which requires that pressure be applied first to one side of the roof, and then to the other side. For years, safety advocates have urged NHTSA to use such testing for setting roof standards, since it better approximates the real impact of rollover crashes on a car’s roof.

A second rule that NHTSA finalized establishes a stricter braking standard for large trucks. The rule effectively requires that stopping distances for most large trucks be reduced by as much as 30 percent. The agency expects the rule to save 227 lives and avert 300 serious injuries per year.

In addition to finalizing these rules, however, NHTSA should have used this past year to begin launching its own affirmative agenda for fulfilling its statutory mission. Compared to the other protector agencies, NHTSA was in a much different position at the start of the Obama Administration. Whereas the other agencies had to essentially begin moving from a full stop, NHTSA actually had some regulatory momentum that it could have built upon. It is discouraging to see NHTSA squander much of this momentum by failing to initiate any new protective actions during the first year of the Obama Administration—particularly since so much work remains to be done to increase safety on the nation’s highways.

To be fair, as with other protector agencies, NHTSA’s regulatory performance continues to be hampered by diminished resources and stiff opposition from the industries it regulates.

As he looks ahead to the second year of his administration, President Obama must resolve to redouble his efforts to free NHTSA and the other protector agencies from these obstacles so that they can return to the business of protecting people and the environment.

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