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Is It Time to Throw NHTSA Under the Bus?

by Roger Lanctot | Jun 17, 2014

At an International Motor Press Association luncheon in New York City today GlobalAutomakers President and CEO John Bozzella noted that questions were being raised as to how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) might raise the additional $18M budgeted for FY2015 vehicle safety research.  Bozzella said that options on the table included a per-vehicle tax or fee to be paid by consumers or a similar tax or fee to be paid by car makers.  When asked, by this analyst, Bozzella said that he was not aware of any discussion of privatizing NHTSA or any of its functions.

I had asked the question because I believe it is time to consider the privatization option.

NHTSA's FY 2015 budget request totals $851M and includes $152M for vehicle safety research (an $18M increase), $122M for behavioral safety and $577M for state grants and high visibility enforcement support. In light of the rash of recalls blanketing the auto industry, there will be calls for additional funding for safety research. Given the embarrassing revelations implicating NHTSA's inadequate review, research and enforcement of its own safety standards vis-a-vis General Motors in the recent and still unfolding ignition switch recall, now looks like a good time to remove the government from the business of setting and enforcing safety standards.

Further oversight, research and testimony will be required before NHTSA is fully and formally exonerated of any wrong-doing as part of the ignition switch recall, but the fact that the agency is implicated at all in failing to identify the problem and initiate action suggests it is time for a change.  It also recalls the agency's admission of its inability to diagnose the Toyota sudden acceleration case of two years ago.

All indications are that the functional demands of safety research have transcended the agency's ability to keep up and adequately protect the public.  It is time for the government to recognize this fact and rather than throwing good money after bad - shift the safety research functions of the agency to the private sector where the expertise already resides.

This is a particularly important step to take as the automotive safety segment shifts to active from passive safety - requiring an entirely new analytical skill set for divining whether new technologies have prevented accidents - ie. proving a negative.  New skills require new strategies for studying and promoting the adoption of life-saving technologies.  NHTSA is not ever likely to have sufficient resources to keep pace with automotive industry innovation.

Of course, this is a radical concept - so I throw it open to you, the reader.  Is there any good reason for NHTSA to retain its safety investigative, standards-setting and enforcement responsibilities?  What do you think?

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