Decades later, still unsafe at any speed

Will Congress vote to improve motor vehicle safety this year?

February 07, 2011|By Ben Kelley

America's once-vigorous commitment to stopping death and injury on our roads — one of the nation's most severe public health problems — has become dangerously weak. With the failure of auto safety legislation in the last Congress, it appears that the public and its policymakers may no longer be interested in supporting tough measures to substantially reduce bloodshed on the highways, despite the fact that crashes continue to be the principal cause of fatal and severe injury to children and young adults, and one of the top 10 causes of death in every other age group.

Forty-five years ago, a very different climate prevailed. Highly publicized congressional hearings were uncovering detailed evidence of widespread safety failures by auto manufacturers. Cars were being designed and sold with features that caused fatal and severe injuries in crashes — such as rigid, spear-like steering columns, injurious interior protrusions, lack of effective restraint systems, and ejection-enhancing windshields and door locks. The companies' engineers knew how to eliminate these hazards, but management wasn't interested. Lack of safety was killing and maiming people, but that didn't figure into the profit-making calculations of the companies. Highway deaths climbed to more than 50,000 a year.

As a result of the hearings and the intense public attention they generated, Congress in 1966 unanimously enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, a groundbreaking law regulating the safety performance of motor vehicles. The industry fought to stop passage of the law, but there was overwhelming public sentiment for federal action to eliminate deadly auto hazards.

Since then, the regulatory effort, carried out by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has had a mixed record of accomplishment — one that is hardly producing, as President Lyndon Johnson had hoped, the "cure for the highway disease." About 40,000 people die in crashes each year, and hundreds of thousands are horribly injured (though the toll has dropped in the last couple of years, due largely to the poor economy). In Maryland, 592 people perished, and 48,143 were injured in vehicle crashes in 2008. From 1998 to 2008, more than 6,900 people died on the state's roads, and roughly 640,000 were injured.

Doubtless, motor vehicles are less hazardous today because of NHTSA's safety regulations and defective-vehicle recalls. But frequently, the agency has acquiesced to industry by weakening or delaying safety rules and hedging on recalls. For example, it took NHTSA more than 10 years to issue an effective roof crush standard to minimize injury in the all-too-common rollovers of top-heavy SUVs, pickup trucks and vans. And until recently, the agency had consistently declined to find that design defects that cause cars to lose their power steering — a threat to driver control — should trigger recalls.

Nor has NHTSA shown foresight in examining emergent issues that have potential safety implications, such as the possibility of crash-causing glitches in complex automotive electronic control systems. (Independent experts believe that such malfunctions may have caused some Toyota "sudden unintended acceleration" crashes.) Instead, it has tended to let industry, whose financial and manpower resources dwarf the agency's, take over the study of such problems, often with results that better serve the companies than the public. "Regulatory capture," a condition well documented by students of government, occurs when regulators become overly deferential to the giant industries they are assigned to oversee, forgetting their public-interest mission in the process. It is a condition that increasingly afflicts NHTSA.

Recognizing these infirmities and spurred by the Toyota sudden acceleration mess, House and Senate committees last year reported out the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, a bill to substantially increase NHTSA's funding and regulatory powers. But despite an urgent need for the legislation (among other things, it would deal with problems like Toyota's decade-long cover-up of the runaway car defect), it died a little-publicized death in the waning days of the last Congress after Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, a physician, (you know, one of the folks who have to sew up crash-injured people), used the "hold" tactic to block its consideration. The White House failed to get behind the bill, while the auto industry's leading trade association, joined by a roster of high-powered corporate interests, went on record opposing it.

Hopefully, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act will advance in the new Congress. If it does, the auto industry doubtless will lobby the Republican-controlled House to kill it. This means the bill would pass only if enough Republicans put public well-being ahead of narrow auto industry self-interest — as they did in 1966 — and vote in favor of it. Defying the lobbying clout of the auto industry would not be easy for them, but it would demonstrate that our national commitment to "ending the highway horror" is still alive and bipartisan.

Ben Kelley, a board member of the Center for Auto Safety, previously held senior positions at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and U.S. Department of Transportation. This op-ed also appears in FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit, online investigative publication focused on safety and health issues.

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