Backlog in Federal Safety Rules Amid US Car Crash “Epidemic”

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WASHINGTON (AP) – After their 16-year-old daughter died in a car crash, David and Wendy Mills wondered if she would be alive if the federal rules for rear seat belt warnings were issued on time.

Four years later, without a rule and without the number of road fatalities increasing, they are still lost in the face of inaction.

The teenager was riding in the back seat of a car for a Halloween party in 2017, just a mile from her home in Spring, Texas, when she unbuckled her seat belt to slip past her. girlfriend and take a selfie. Moments later, the driver swerved from the road and the car rolled over, ejecting him.

Kailee died instantly. His three friends who remained curly left with minor scratches.

A law of 2012 ordered National Road Safety Administration, an agency of the Ministry of Transport, to implement safety rules requiring car manufacturers to install a warning to drivers if an unbuckled passenger is seated in a rear seat. The agency had three years to act.

But the settlement was not made when Kailee got into her friend’s car. It’s one of more than a dozen car safety rules that have been overdue for years, according to an Associated Press analysis.

The ever-growing case has become one of the biggest tests for the federal agency since its founding in 1970, when public pressure led by security activist Ralph Nader boosted NHTSA’s mission to “save lives.” , prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road accidents. . ”

Advocates fear the agency has lost focus and may get bogged down under President Joe Biden at some point in time. increase in road accidents and reckless driving during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need a call to action,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Association of Governors for Road Safety. He called the pandemic accident outbreak a “car crash epidemic”.

Backlog of rules set to grow with sweeping tech demands included in $ 1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill pending in Congress, new breathalyzers that would deactivate a car if a driver is intoxicated with stricter standards for reporting safety recalls.

Currently, the federal agency of 600 employees does not have a permanent leader. His Acting Administrator is Steven Cliff, a former deputy chief executive of the California Air Resources Board, which regulates automobile emissions, a key part of Biden’s climate program.

“The government should take action on security soon,” said David Mills, who started a foundation in the Houston area in honor of Kailee to promote the safety of seat belts. The foundation maintains a list, known as “Kailee’s Angels,” of some of the country’s teens who have died in car crashes after failing to fasten their seat belts.

“It is devastating for families,” he said.

The rear seat belt recall requirement is now expected to start going through the heavy regulatory process in January, but a final rule could take years. In the past, the agency has repeatedly missed deadlines, including those promised in federal court.

The PA’s review of NHTSA’s rule-making activities under the last three presidents revealed at least 13 auto safety rules that have been overdue for years based on deadlines set in laws passed by the Congress.

In most cases, these rules are challenged by powerful industries because they are expensive, outdated or restrictive. Other pending rules have been slowed down by bureaucracy or have taken a back seat to other priorities under Democratic presidents. For example, a 2011 initiative to equip large commercial vehicles with devices to limit their speed was recently suspended indefinitely by Biden.

President Donald Trump has dismissed at least four major road safety proposals, including medical assessments of commercial truck drivers for sleep apnea.

The pending rules include side impact standards for child car seats, originally slated for 2014. Attorneys general for 17 states and the District of Columbia wrote to the Biden administration in July, urging action immediate. Other pending rules would require automakers to keep records of safety defects for at least 10 years, as required by Congress and initially expected in 2017, and anti-ejection protection measures for more buses. large, expected in 2014.

Standards for “smart” car headlights, started in 2018, are incomplete despite support from the auto industry. Smart headlights would adjust a high-intensity light to oncoming traffic, so drivers don’t have to switch between high beam and low beam.

NHTSA declined to make Cliff available for comment. Rather, the agency released a list of measures it has taken to ensure motor vehicle safety, including recently announced proposed fuel economy standards. that Biden promoted to deal with climate change.

The agency partially highlights plans to require or set standards for automatic emergency braking systems on new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks, a reversal by the Trump administration, and to go moving forward on some of the delayed regulations, although it did not offer any firm guarantees. on timing.

NHTSA is committed to demanding what it says are rigorous testing standards for autonomous vehicles and to establishing a national database to document automated vehicle crashes. He pushed electric vehicle maker Tesla to recall dark touchscreens and study the company’s autopilot failure of the partially automated driving system to stop for parked emergency vehicles.

In recent public remarks, Cliff said the agency is committed to tackling the increase in fatal traffic accidents and he stressed a “transformational and collaborative approach to safety.”

Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, and other consumer groups urged Biden to quickly appoint an agency manager. The last Senate-confirmed NHTSA administrator served under President Barack Obama until 2017.

“You have a Biden administration that seems overall more interested in acting in a regulatory manner than the previous administration,” Levine said. “This is why there is so much excitement, but also quite frankly frustration that things don’t move with a greater sense of urgency.”

The Alliance for Auto Innovation, which is the trade association representing all automakers except Tesla, declined to comment for this story.

Automakers have made progress on safety issues on their own or through voluntary agreements with the government. For example, 20 companies agreed with NHTSA in 2016 to make automatic emergency braking standard on at least 95% of their new passenger vehicles by September 1, 2022. At least 10 have already met the target. Two years ago, 20 automakers agreed to install electronic reminders to check rear seats so drivers wouldn’t leave children in hot cars. The industry would install the recalls in new vehicles by the 2025 model year.

The Governors Highway Safety Association was push hard for rear seat belt reminders since 2015, noting at the time that fewer passengers jostled in the back when riding in increasingly popular Uber, Lyft and other rental vehicles.

Last year, more than half of all fatalities involved drivers or occupants without seat belts, the highest level since 2012, according to the NHTSA.

An estimated 38,680 people were killed in traffic crashes in 2020, the highest total since 2007, even though the total number of kilometers driven fell due to stay-at-home orders at the start of the pandemic. In the first three months of 2021, 8,730 people died in traffic accidents, an increase of 10.5% from the same period last year.

More than 800 people who were not buckled in the backseat die each year in car crashes, and an analysis of NHTSA data by the Governing Panel found that wearing seat belts would have saved more than half of them.

These grim statistics and the rise in the number of deaths have prompted states in recent months to look for ways to increase seat belt use, such as with “Click it or Ticket” law enforcement campaigns. “. In Connecticut, a law signed by Democratic Governor Ned Lamont went into effect this month that requires all rear passengers 16 and older to wear seat belts. The under 16s had to tie up already.

Adkins said state road safety officials were encouraged to see Biden raising Jennifer Homendy, a former congressman and member of the National Transportation Safety Board who spent two decades working on transportation safety, as chair of the NTSB. In recent months, she has appeared with Lamont to promote the new rear seat belt law, denounced Tesla’s ‘misleading’ marketing which she says puts lives at risk and called for safety standards. more stringent federal laws.

But as the head of the NTSB, she has no real regulator, and the buzz at a recent Governors Safety Conference was the impact she could have if she was the administrator of the NHTSA. .

“We need a senior NHTSA administrator who has the political capacity to get things done,” Adkins said. “There is no time for a learning curve. We are in a bad spot when it comes to road safety. We have work to do. And we need the administration’s attention.

Various NHTSA delays have led to a patchwork of auto industry-initiated safety devices that lack a clear minimum level of standards, said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Many features are also typically sold in high-end cars or luxury packages, effectively imposing an “extra” on consumer safety.

She noted that a 2008 congressional mandate to install backup cameras in passenger vehicles took NHTSA 10 years and a lawsuit by her group and others before the rule was finally implemented; the original deadline was 2011.

Meanwhile, the European Union began requiring seat belt reminder systems on the front and rear seats of new cars in September 2019.

“I can’t say the US auto industry regulator is on the right track,” Chase said. “We are years behind at this point. I don’t want to be critical as they are still in their first year, but the infancy of the new administration will soon expire, and it is time for them to move on.

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Yen reported from Washington and Austin, Texas, and Krisher from Detroit.


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