National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

NHTSA Mission

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, often pronounced “nit-suh”) is an agency of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, part of the Department of Transportation. It describes its mission as “Save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes.”

One of NHTSA’s major achievements in pursuit of this mission is the data files maintained by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis. In particular, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, has become a resource for traffic safety research not only in the US, but throughout the world. Research contributions using FARS by researchers from many countries appear in many non-US technical publications, and provide the most solid knowledge on the subject.

U.S. Safety Performance Since Creation of NHTSA

In the mid 1960s, when what is now NHTSA came in being, the USA had safer traffic than any country in the world, whether measured by the number of traffic deaths per thousand vehicles, or the number of traffic deaths per 100 million miles.

In 2002, the US had sunk to 16th place (behind Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Iceland, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland) in terms of deaths per thousand vehicles. In terms of deaths per 100 million miles, the USA had dropped from first place to tenth place.

Simple raw numbers of annual traffic deaths, all from readily available government data (FARS for US), show the pattern clearly using three comparison countries that are otherwise similar to the US.

  1979 Fatalities 2002 Fatalities Percent Change
United States 51,093 42,815 -16.2%
Great Britain 6,352 3,431 -46.0%
Canada 5,863 2,936 -49.9%
Australia 3,508 1,715 -51.1%

If US fatalities had dropped close to the nearly 50% amount experienced in the other countries, the US would now be suffering about 27,000 annual traffic deaths instead of over 42,000. The US has not experienced a decrease in fatalities like what has occurred in other countries, and therefore, about 15,000 additional Americans are being killed on our roads annually.

The contrast between the relative lack of safety progress in the US compared to other countries has been dubbed “The dramatic failure of US safety policy.” (Evans, L. The Dramatic Failure of U.S. Safety Policy. TR News (Transportation Research Board), 242: 28-31, January-February, 2006.)

While data leaves no doubt of the enormity of the failure, the extent of NHTSA’s responsibility cannot be so easily determined. It is clear from decades of scientific research that behavioral factors are vastly more important than vehicle factors. NHTSA’s own research confirmed this in a classic large scale study performed at the Indiana University in the mid 1970s. Based on multi-disciplinary examinations, the vehicle was identified as the primary factor in only 2% of 5,000 crashes investigated. Even for these, the vehicle factor was mainly related to poor maintenance of brakes and tires. (Detailed reports summarized in Treat JR. A study of precrash factors involved in traffic accidents. The HSRI Research Review. Ann Arbor, MI; May-August 1980.)

As much of the rest of this article so clearly attests, NHTSA’s efforts have focused largely on those vehicle factors which research shows to be of microscopic relevance. The vehicle mix, and vehicle regulations in Canada are not all that different from those in the US, yet Canada cut its traffic deaths in half while those in the US declined by only 16%. An immediate illustration of how much more important are the factors that Canada (etc.) emphasized.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration History

In 1958, the UN established the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations. This development was not noted in the United States at the time, but vehicles meeting these established safety standards were legal to import into the United States.

In 1965 and 1966, public pressure grew in the US to increase the safety of cars, culminating with the publishing of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, and the National Academy of Sciences’ “Accidental Death and Disability – The Neglected Disease of Modern Society”.

In 1966, Congress held a series of highly publicized hearings regarding highway safety, and passed legislation to make installation of seat belts mandatory, and created several predacessor agencies which would eventually become the NHTSA, including the National Traffic Safety Agency, the National Highway Safety Agency, and the National Highway Safety Bureau.

The NHTSA was officially established in 1970 by the Highway Safety Act of 1970. In 1972, the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act expanded NHTSA’s scope to include consumer information programs.

Since this era, automobiles have become far better in protecting their occupants in vehicle impacts. The number of deaths on American highways hover around 40,000 annually, a lower death rate per mile travelled than in the 1960’s.

NHTSA has conducted numerous high-profile investigations of automotive safety issues, including the Audi 5000/60 Minutes affair and the Ford Explorer rollover problem.

In the US, NHTSA is currently evaluating whether Electronic Stability Control should be mandatory for all passenger vehicles. This is remarkably fast for a technology first brought to public attention in 1997, with the Swedish moose test.

Consumers today have a far greater amount of auto safety information available, due to the efforts of NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Born from Oligopoly

In the era when NHTSA began, a commonly repeated saying in the U.S. auto industry was “safety does not sell.” From a modern perspective, this seems unusual, since auto manufacturers now prominently feature safety features and positive safety ratings in their advertising, but the automobile market in the US at this time in history had some unusual characteristics.

At the time NHTSA was established, the U.S. auto market was an oligopoly, with just three companies controlling 85% of the market. In economics, oligopoly is a type of market failure. U.S. manufacturers (which had innovated the automatic transmission, air conditioning, and power steering in the post-War years) suddenly realized that any innovation in car safety would be unprofitable.

Some of the major car safety innovations of the 20th century, like roll cage construction, seat belts and traction control, were therefore developed abroad in response to competitive market forces in those territories.

Government agencies have only a modest record of success in the area of innovation and breakthrough design, but they are widely perceived as good at establishing minimum acceptable standards.

Car manufacturers appeared to be dragging their feet on improving vehicle safety in the American market. Faced with this situation, Americans sought government help. Command and control legislation appeared to many to be a wise course of action at the time.

This move was controversial, with other Americans feeling that if a certain passenger vehicle is not safe, the consumer is perfectly free not to purchase it. They would point to Volvo, which equipped its cars with seat belts beginning in 1959, and was available to Americans. The real market failure in this view was the lack of safety information. Other than providing this information, the government has no role.

The command and control group won this argument and NHTSA reflects this view. Cars that fall outside of NHTSA regulations are actually illegal for Americans to possess.

Today the US auto market has fragmented and is far more competitive, leading to advances in car safety, technological innovation, and price competition.

Unintended Consequences

Design legislation led to many unintended consequences, especially in the early days of NTHSA.

Many of these spring from the fact that Americans in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and early 1980’s often preferred not to wear seat belts – yet these are one of the single most important safety devices ever created. NHTSA struggled with this fact and came up with the seatbelt interlock in 1974, that prevented the car from starting unless the occupants were belted. The interlock provoked such an uproar that it was quickly pulled from the market.

Also in 1974, NHTSA banned the Citroën SM automobile, which contemporary journalists noted was one of the safest vehicles available at the time, due to a non-safety related design issue. Citroën expected (but did not receive) an exemption for the 1974 model year 5 mph bumper regulation imposed by the NHTSA. The integral variable height suspension of the SM made compliance impossible. The law as written called for bumpers to be an exact height off the ground at all times, yet according to the laws of physics, cars dip at the nose on braking. Vehicles classified as trucks were always exempt. However, in 1981 the law under which the Citroën SM was banned was repealed. Ford reintroduced a similar powered suspension system to the US market in 1988 in one of its Lincoln models.

NHTSA also administers the controversial Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program. The Wall Street Journal and others have argued that this program distorts market incentives, forcing people to buy smaller, less safe vehicles. CAFE may indeed be a driving factor behind the explosion in demand for sport utility vehicles, which are considered “light trucks” for CAFE purposes and therefore do not have to meet the stricter standards for vehicles classified as “cars.” The counter argument is that politically reflecting the actual cost of oil and its externalities to the US consumer is not politically feasible.

Aerodynamics Brings Change to NHTSA

In the 1980’s, NHTSA suddenly faced a conflict between its mission to enforce the laws Congress had mandated on automobiles and its objective to increase vehicle fuel economy. Ford, a major U.S. car company, wished to introduce the first aerodynamically designed American family sedan as a 1986 model – the Ford Taurus. The design of this vehicle would not achieve decent aerodynamic performance if forced to comply with the 1940 regulation on automobile headlights, which was in force and administered by NHTSA.

With the lobbying muscle of Ford, a change in the headlight law was finally enacted. Ford used headlamp bulbs that have the same transverse-mounted filament design as in the sealed beam headlamps in use at the time.

The Grey Market

The United States has chosen to make its automobile design regulations incompatible with those of other industrialised nations, such as the European Union and Japan.

Since NHTSA regulations have no provision for equivalency, and full NHTSA type approval costs approximately $2 million, the availability of some cars to American consumers is restricted. This particularly impacts low volume manufacturers.

Because of the unavailability of certain cars, the grey market for vehicles arose in the late 1970’s. This provided an alternate method to acquire these vehicles, and still obtain NHTSA certification. The success of the grey market, however, ate into the business of Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc, which launched a successful congressional lobbying effort to eliminate this alternative in 1988.

It is no longer possible to import a non-US vehicle into the United States as a personal import, with one exception. In 1998, NHTSA granted vehicles over 25 years of age dispensation from the rules it administers, since these are presumed to be collector vehicles.