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Buttigieg Priorities: Climate, Infrastructure, Safety!

by Roger Lanctot | Feb 01, 2021

A press release from the Governors Highway Safety Association reports that 11,260 people were killed on U.S. roadways in the third quarter of 2020, a 13.1% increase compared to the same 2019 period. That increase reversed declines reported in the first two quarters of 2020 and contributed to an overall 4.6% increase in highway fatalities for the first nine months of 2020 relative to 2019.

This horrible news arrives as the U.S. Department of Transportation is about to gain new leadership as former South Bend Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s nomination proceeds through Congress. The spike in fatalities highlights the Everest of challenges facing the incoming Secretary and raises questions as to how he will prioritize vehicle safety.

Buttigieg will be expected to promote and implement President Biden’s transportation agenda which includes a $2T infrastructure program and an aggressive electrification strategy. Biden's plan includes government purchases of electric vehicles and a massive expansion of charging infrastructure.

Lurking at the U.S. DOT's long-neglected and under-resourced National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meanwhile, is an aimless vehicle safety organization focused almost entirely on defining a process for regulating self-driving vehicles while simultaneously granting regulatory waivers to emerging autonomous vehicle operators. In fact, about the most productive thing NHTSA is doing these days is granting waivers – which typically save vehicle developers tens of millions of dollars in their efforts to comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

The United States may be seeing 4,000 COVID-19 fatalities daily, but those figures will soon be in decline in the face of coronavirus countermeasures and vaccines. There is no vaccine for the 100+ daily fatalities occurring on U.S. roadways. A functioning NHTSA is the driving public's only hope.

The declines in highway fatalities in the first two quarters of 2020 may have raised expectations of a COVID-19 fatality reduction dividend resulting from diminished travel. With the first stirrings of re-openings, however, it is clear that the decades-long struggle to reduce highway fatalities awaits a stronger regulatory touch even during the pandemic.

For the first nine months of 2020, 28,190 people died in crashes in the U.S. The GHSA press release states that traffic deaths rose even though there were fewer drivers on the road.

NHTSA was created almost exactly 50 years ago – on December 31, 1970 – with the purpose of protecting vehicle occupants from crashes.  NHTSA created the New Car Assessment Program in 1979 – a program that ultimately produced the five star safety ratings familiar today.

Forty years after the founding of NCAP, former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook has decried the current “starflation” under which consumers are unable to discriminate between predominantly four- and five-star safety rated vehicles. Claybrook and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety have published a suggested roadmap for restoring U.S. leadership in vehicle safety:

It’s important to understand the role of NCAP’s five star ratings – now supplemented by ratings produced by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It took NHTSA and coordinated government legislative action (or the threat of such action) to convince car makers to alter their thinking about protecting passengers.

The emergence of five-star safety ratings helped to dramatically transform consumer attitudes towards safety. Strategy Analytics surveys of consumers throughout the world routinely find safety among top vehicle purchasing criteria. The five-star safety rating is not only coveted by car makers and sought out by consumers – it is essential.

Electrification and fuel efficiency are important. Infrastructure is important. But vehicle safety centered on passenger protection has reached an untenable plateau. What has been seen as a solved problem by some has evolved into a new challenge in the form of collision avoidance. The new challenge for NHTSA revolves around the exploration, standardization, and adoption of systems for blind spot detection, lane departure warning, cross traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control.

Driver monitoring has also moved up the list of vehicle safety priorities.  General Motors’ Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving system, for instance, received high marks from Consumer Reports in part due to its integrated driver monitor.

By raising and establishing new safety standards, now focusing on collision avoidance, NHTSA can restore its leadership. In his first comments to the press U.S. DOT Secretary nominee Buttigieg noted in response to a question regarding raising Federal gas taxes that all options were available. A spokesperson for Buttigieg later noted that such an increase was not on the table.

Climate change is indeed an existential crisis. It will take expensive, long-term investments to tackle that challenge.  But lagging vehicle safety standardization is an immediate and devastating outcome of years of regulatory neglect at NHTSA.  There is no time to lose in setting a path toward wider adoption of driver monitoring and collision avoidance technologies and the appropriate safety ratings that will help to educate consumers.  We can no longer ignore America’s highway fatality leadership – fourth highest in the world at 100/day. Only NHTSA, not Moderna, can mitigate this carnage.

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