NHTSA Reveals Its Many Accomplishments, 2017–2021

Sometimes, when you’re leaving a job, you get an exit interview. What went right? What went wrong? Why did you ever think it was okay to microwave your leftover fish tacos in the office kitchenette? Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in wrapping up its four-year tenure under the prior presidential regime, decided to give itself an exit interview of sorts, releasing a document titled “NHTSA Chief Accomplishments, 2017-21.” With 22 bullet points and about 1200 words, it’s a bit much to go through line by line, but let’s take a look at the highlights.

At the top of the list is “Improved Safety and Affordability.” So did NHTSA introduce tougher safety standards or offer some kind of incentives to make cars more affordable? That’s what it sounds like, but no. What they’re claiming here is that the EPA’s reduction in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards would result in lower car prices, thus prompting more people to replace their old (and probably less safe) cars with new ones.

This presumes that any R&D and production savings realized by a manufacturer will be passed on to the consumer, and that this savings will be pronounced enough to prompt (according to NHTSA) “three million additional car sales over the next decade.” It also assumes that car companies, which have multi-year lead times, will entirely rejigger their long-term product planning from one presidential administration to the next. And that, given a choice, car buyers will choose less efficient vehicles with some kind of up-front savings, with the understanding that they’ll pay more to fuel said vehicle over its useful life. Finally, the premise of a net public health benefit assumes that increased vehicle emissions make no difference to air quality. All righty! The bottom line is that the push toward electrification will eventually render CAFE standards moot, and like we said: that came from the EPA, not NHTSA.

Then there’s a bunch of stuff about encouraging autonomous-car development (okay) and child safety in cars (like expanding the ad campaign about pediatric hyperthermia). Then: scary batteries! “In light of recent fires involving electric vehicles that destroyed vehicles and even homes, we launched the Battery Safety Initiative to research battery technologies and develop safety standards to reduce future risks.” Here, for anyone interested, we will simply point out that when an electric car catches fire, it’s news, and when 150 internal-combustion vehicles cars catch fire, it’s an average Tuesday. That’s according to a U.S. Fire Administration report on vehicle fires from 2014 to 2016, a period that included an estimated 171,500 highway vehicle fires. The report doesn’t distinguish between EV fires and internal combustion, but it does say that, “flammable liquids and gases in general were, by far, the most deadly (67 percent of deaths)” item ignited. The Fire Administration’s report also includes some specific examples of all the ways that cars can catch fire, including this very New York scenario:

May 2017: A vehicle was parked on a city block in New York, New York, and had not been driven for about a week. When the owner of the vehicle went to drive it, he noticed his engine was overheating and then abruptly caught fire. He exited the vehicle, opened the hood, and discovered two deceased baby rats on the ledge of the engine. Firefighters soon arrived at the scene and extinguished the fire. Further investigation by firefighters found additional rats in the rims of the vehicle’s tire.

      Point being: what about the fire rats, NHTSA?

      Moving on, there’s a section pertaining to recalls. A few years ago, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation conducted an audit of NHTSA’s recall procedures, prompted by the Takata airbag fiasco. The essential conclusion: “NHTSA’s process for monitoring for light-passenger-vehicle recalls lacks documentation and management controls, and does not ensure that remedies are reported completely and in a timely manner.” Basically, NHTSA needed to put some teeth into its recall procedures. And they say that’s what happened, with more than 1000 recalls in 2018 and more than 53 million vehicles recalled in 2019. “We also took necessary and appropriate steps to protect the integrity of the recall program, issuing more than $250 million in civil penalties, including the largest set of penalties in agency history, for failure to comply with regulatory requirements or for a lack of candor,” says NHTSA’s report.

      So the Trump administration cracked down on corporate malfeasance for the benefit of consumers? Well, maybe! The key verb here, regarding penalties, is “issuing.” Which is not the same as “collecting.” By the time a case reaches the point where a fine is actually paid, it’s recorded as a settlement, and a former NHTSA staffer who dealt with railway cases told us, “Settlements were usually pennies on the dollar compared to the original penalties.” And over the past four years, settlements have totaled less than $15 million, almost all of which is accounted for by a single $13 million payment from Mercedes-Benz for recall-related shenanigans. So, regarding that $250 million, time will tell.

      Further down, there’s a whole section about COVID-19, which may prompt you to ask, “What’s COVID got to do with driving?” Well, remember when people took to the empty roads to drive like absolute maniacs? Apparently, NHTSA took notice: “As the data began to indicate troubling trends in highway safety, we conducted research and prepared reports illustrating the rise of unsafe driving practices during the national health crisis, and began coordinating with our stakeholders to identify countermeasures.” By “stakeholders” we assume they mean “cops,” and by “countermeasures” we assume they mean “more cops.” Either way, NHTSA is on to you, Cannonball idiots.

      NHTSA also apparently leveraged its access to blood tests to try to expand data on COVID spread: “We used our own research tools to help address the national health crisis, repurposing an existing blood study testing for drugs and alcohol among fatal or near-fatal crash victims, to assist NIH in assessing scope and nature of COVID infection among the public.” Given the Trump administration attitude toward COVID testing (especially at the start), it’s interesting that NHTSA creatively used its resources to help generate some much-needed data. In the context of the 2020 federal government, that qualifies as low-key rebellion.

      So that’s about it. NHTSA did some good things and some things that might be good but we don’t yet know. And it did some sort of pointless things, and took credit for at least one thing that was the domain of an entirely different agency. Now we’ll have four years to see how NHTSA functions under the Biden administration, and to ponder the real question we should be asking about the agency: Shouldn’t we be calling it “the NHTSA”?

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