The History of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the fourth in a four-part series profiling the history, structure and purpose of consumer protection agencies in the United States, including the CPSC, FDA, USDA and NHTSA.
In 1940 the U.S. government legislated the design of sealed beam headlamps as a safety improvement to automobiles. While in 1958 the United Nations (UN) established the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations11 the U.S. made no effort to establish any safety regulations, and refused to join the UN group.
Apathy gave way when a 1966 report released by the National Academies of Sciences1,2 raised awareness of the degree to which the epidemic of accidental injuries had been overlooked. Its introductory statement describes the impact of these accidents with such influence that the U.S. Government took notice.
“In 1965, 52 million accidental injuries killed 107,000, temporarily disabled over 10 million and permanently impaired 400,000 American citizens at a cost of approximately $18 billion. This neglected epidemic of modern society is the nation’s most important environmental health problem. It is the leading cause of death in the first half of life’s span.“
The report goes on to state that 49,000 deaths, also in 1965, resulted from motor-vehicle accidents, with more than that due to accidents at work, home, public buildings, due to recreational activities, or other modes of transportation.
Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile3 brought the issue of consumer safety to national public awareness. In it he describes the reluctance of auto manufacturers to build in safety features, such as seat belts, and many other issues, such as pollution, gearshift patterns, tire pressure, and more.
These publications and rising public demand for safety assurances reached government officials. In 1965 Najeeb Halaby, Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) administrator, suggested that President Johnson create a cabinet post for transportation, and include the FAA within that post.
The 1966 Highway Safety Act4 was passed to ensure that each state had a highway safety program that would reduce traffic accidents and associated deaths, injuries and property damage. The act also addressed the poor emergency care available to care for accident victims in a timely and adequate manner, and laid the foundation for today’s Emergency Medical Services1,5 (EMS.) The Department of Transportation (DOT) was created by an act of Congress on October 15 1966 and began operating officially on April 1, 1967.
At the signing of this act, President Lyndon B. Johnston is quoted as saying6, “… we have tolerated a raging epidemic of highway death … which has killed more of our youth than all other diseases combined. Through the Highway Safety Act, we are going to find out more about highway disease—and we aim to cure it.”
The DOT became responsible for several transportation related agencies, including:
* Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
* Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
* Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)
* Federal Transit Administration (FTA)
* Maritime Administration (MARAD)
* Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
* National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)7
* Office of Climate Change and Environment
* Office of Inspector General
* Office of the Secretary of Transportation (OST)
* Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA)
* Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)
* Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation (SLSDC)
* Surface Transportation Board (STB)
Originally named the National Highway Safety Bureau (NHSB), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was established as its successor under the U.S. Department of Transportation by the Highway Safety Act of 1970. Authorized, as an agency under the DOT, it oversees and enforces safety, fuel economy standards, licensing for vehicle manufacturers and importers, safety-regulated vehicle parts, the VIN system, and the dummies and test protocols used to test vehicle safety.8 NHTSA also carries out consumer programs established by the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972, which has been recodified in various chapters under Title 49.
NHTSA is responsible for setting and enforcing safety standards for motor vehicles and related equipment with goals of reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses due to motor vehicle crashes. It provides grants to state and local governments for local highway safety programs. NHTSA investigates safety defects in motor vehicles, sets and enforces fuel economy standards, helps states and local communities reduce the threat of drunk drivers, promotes the use of safety belts, child safety seats and air bags, investigates odometer fraud, establishes and enforces vehicle anti-theft regulations and provides consumer information on motor vehicle safety topics. NHTSA also conducts research on driver behavior and traffic safety, to develop the most efficient and effective means of bringing about safety improvements.8
Despite all of the multi-level regulation in the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world seem to be producing motor vehicles that are far safer than American made vehicles9. Speculations that NHTSA’s regulations are more geared to protecting the major U.S. automakers and less on safety in general arose out of it ban on imports of foreign made vehicles made to International ECE regulations10. ECE regulations are set by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, and intended to set uniform regulations that facilitate international trade.
Over the 1970s and 1980s NTSHA’s efforts to enforce the use of seatbelts included requirements that automakers build in some incentives. These included alarms, lights, disabling the starter until all front seat passengers had properly secured their seatbelts, etc. It wasn’t until the 1990s that they were able to require airbags.
One of the major deciding factors in evaluating whether to require, by regulation a specific device is the cost-benefit ratio of that device. Since figures and statistics can be manipulated to support a favored decision, it isn’t clear whether all of the decisions are truly based upon saving more money than it costs to implement, or meeting a specified amount of money per life saved. The ECE standards have required leveling and cleaning equipment for HID headlamps due to their powerful beam, yet NTSHA has not required these safety measures despite the potential blinding glare from a misaligned headlamp. Halogen headlamps, used first in Europe in 1962 were not legal in the U.S. until 1997. Cost-effectiveness was cited as the reason for delaying approval.
It seems that recalls have become so commonplace they are just another inconvenience in our day-to-day living. Over the years SUV rollovers, faulty gears, engine problems, and other defects, both major and minor seem to be in the news on a regular basis. So far, as of June 2008 auto recalls include Polaris ATVs, Volkswagon Passat, Passat Wagon and Tiguan 2008-2009, 2000-2002 Chevrolet Blazers, 2000-2001 GMC Jimmy, 2000 Oldsmobile Bravada SUVs, and Fleetwood Jamboree and Tioga Motor Homes. 2007, known as the year of the recall due to toy and pet food recalls, also had a number of major vehicle recalls12. Recalls shouldn’t have to be such a large fact of life, but they are. If it’s any solace, just imagine the problems consumers would face if there were no regulations.
If you want to contact the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration you can call the NHTSA DOT Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
400 Seventh St. SW
Washington, D.C. 20590
Phone: (888) 327-4236
NHTSA maintains a recalls and defects database at https://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/ where consumers can read about recalls, file complaints and access other related information.
Office of Defects Investigations/CRD
1200 New Jersey Ave SE
Washington, DC 20590
For more information about recalls and locating the right agency go to https://www.usrecallnews.com/2008/03/adverse-event-reporting-and-contact-information.html
1 National Acadamy of Sciences: https://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=9978&page=5
2 EMS at NHTSA: https://www.ems.gov/portal/site/ems/menuitem.5149822b03938f65a8de25f076ac8789/?vgnextoid=782a10d898318110VgnVCM1000002fd17898RCRD
3 Unsafe at Any Speed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsafe_at_Any_Speed
4 Highway Safety Act: https://www.enotes.com/major-acts-congress/highway-safety-act
5 EMS: https://www.ems.gov/portal/site/ems/menuitem.5149822b03938f65a8de25f076ac8789/?vgnextoid=782a10d898318110VgnVCM1000002fd17898RCRD
6 Highway Safety Act of 1966: https://www.answers.com/topic/highway-safety-act-of-1966?cat=biz-fin
7 NHTSA: www.nhtsa.dot.gov
8 NHTSA Wikipedia Citation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Highway_Traffic_Safety_Administration#cite_note-0
9 NHTSA Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Highway_Traffic_Safety_Administration
10 ECE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ECE_Regulations
11 NHTSA History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Highway_Traffic_Safety_Administration#History
12 Top 10 Auto Recalls: https://www.usrecallnews.com/2008/05/top-ten-auto-recalls-of-2007.html