Terror on the Road

Forty years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in a ceremony at the White House, which included me, signed into law the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. Thus, for the first time, the giant auto industry was no longer exclusively able to decide the margins of casualties in crashes. It had to meet mandatory federal safety standards.

Before the signing ceremony, a New York Times reporter called me and expected that I would have a statement. I had worked with him and other reporters for months on the developing, blockbuster story of auto safety suppression and the battles with the auto companies and their suave lawyer, Lloyd Cutler, in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

My statement, printed the next day in The New York Times, with the President’s remarks, urged a continual monitoring by all concerned groups of the new agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), so that the promise of life-saving regulations would be met.

Over the years NHTSA, inside the Department of Transportation and under the thumb of the White House, has fluctuated from modest activity to a near comatose state. Most of the standards were issued under Presidents Johnson and Carter.

Under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush and Clinton, the agency gradually turned from a regulatory agency into a consulting firm and endless procrastinator to the delight of the auto company executives bent on stifling the creativity of their engineers. The one major exception was the long-delayed issuance of the air bag standard, presently saving thousands of lives and injuries each year.

So great was the pro-industry pressure on NHTSA from both the Republican and Democratic White House (after the Carter years and NHTSA’s energetic Administrator, Joan Claybrook, who left office in January 1981), that the Congress had to pass four laws (in 1990, 1998, 2000 and 2005) mandating specific safety standards for the agency’s action.

During this period of near inaction, millions of vehicles were not recalled for known defects. NHTSA preferred “voluntary compliance,” another phrase for “leave it up to the auto companies”. Practical innovation after innovation by creative auto suppliers were left on the shelves, snubbed by Detroit. Members of the expert teams at NHTSA started to leave the agency, including its excellent fuel efficiency group of engineers and scientists and its talented chief scientist, Dr. Carl Clark-an air bag pioneer.

From being a national safety watchdog, garnering front page news coverage, NHTSA became an expendable agency, headed by political hacks or cowed directors. Its budget, small to begin with, never kept up to the gravity of reducing the dozens of deaths and hundreds of serious injuries each day on the highways.

Today, it operates on a shoestring budget of $227 million annually for operations and research, says Joan Claybrook, who continues to press for NHTSA to act. Only $25 million is devoted to safety performance standards work by the agency. Compare these figures to the $2 billion cost of just one B-2 bomber or the current $280 million for just one of the ever forthcoming F-22 fighter planes that would fit comfortably on a large auditorium stage.

Yes the corporate government’s priorities are truly commercially determined for the Big Boys and their former associates so often running the Federal Departments.

But, in spite of all the above straitjackets, significantly because of the work and standards issued by NHTSA, the fatality rate per hundred million vehicle miles has fallen from 5.6 to under 1.5 today. That decline spells about two million lives saved and tens of millions of injuries avoided or diminished in severity. Regulation works, I repeat, regulation works. And forcing NHTSA to not regulate or deregulate costs lives, wastes billions of dollars and breaks up families and small businesses.

There are three very important safety standards required by Congress that NHTSA must issue – thwarting rollover crashes, rollover protection, roof crush and ejection prevention. These are long overdue. Every year rollover crash deaths take 10,500 lives and nearly double that number are permanently incapacitated.

Just this week, NHTSA finally announced that it would require all motor vehicles to have electronic stability control systems. Half of all vehicles now come with these systems. Better late than never to mandate what the industry decided to do decades late themselves. The auto safety law stipulates that NHTSA was to force practical, feasible safety systems onto the auto companies, not lag behind their lagging behind.

It is a shame that AAA motor clubs are not more aggressive vis-à-vis NHTSA. AAA should follow the example of the Better World Club a small, but spunky alternative to AAA that pushes for safer, more efficient automobiles. The insurance companies are active through two agencies in Washington, D.C. though, given their economic power, they could easily triple these groups’ budgets and enhance their good work.

Year after year, the Center For Auto Safety, Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, and Consumers Union try to pressure the Department of Transportation to move safety technology into reality.

But the auto companies, sometimes with the myopic help of the UAW, amass their influence over Congress, the White House and the major political parties to turn their backs on so many ways to save American lives.

Save American lives? Isn’t that what George W. Bush keeps saying is his number one obligation? Not through NHTSA, OSHA, FDA, EPA and other agencies he largely ignores and hardly ever mentions. Not until he comes to believe that the immense casualties and diseases on the roads, in the workplaces, in the polluted environment and by contaminated food and hazardous drugs are caused by terrorists.



Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!