Donald Trump’s claim that Theresa May’s approach to Brexit has wrecked a possible UK/US trade deal catches the headlines, but it will be pedestrians that act as a major road block to any agreement at least for automobiles. This is because the US and UK are miles apart on safety standards designed to reduce the number of people killed and seriously when knocked down by a car. This clash of safety culture was always likely to be an insurmountable barrier to any trade deal for automobiles regardless of Brexit. For Theresa May pedestrian safety will cause a headache in trade talks especially after she has collided with the rigid bonnet lid of the US car industry and their ‘America First’ President.
Since 2005 all passenger cars sold in the European Union (EU) must pass pedestrian protection requirements that soften the bonnet and bumper to reduce head, chest and leg injuries when a person is struck by a vehicle. The British Government supported the adoption of these regulations which were based on recommendations from the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory. The same regulations were subsequently adopted by Japan and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) as a global standard1. The US, however, has failed to apply them even though pedestrian fatalities there have increased 46% since 2009.
Concerned by these rising fatalities, in 2015 the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) proposed to include the EU/UN pedestrian safety requirements in their New Car Assessment Program (NCAP)2 which provides safety ratings to US consumers. The agency noted that NCAP testing and regulation in Europe and Japan “have likely contributed to a downward trend in pedestrian fatalities” and argued that “including pedestrian protection in the NCAP program would be a step toward realizing similar downward trends experienced in regions of the world that include pedestrians in their consumer information programs”3.
To meet European and Japanese pedestrian protection requirements, the automotive industry has developed effective technology solutions. Notably, a ‘pop up’ bonnet system is increasingly used to raise the distance between the hood and the hard components in the engine bay, reducing the severity of head injury to the struck pedestrian. A 2015 study by NHTSA on European experience with such hoods confirmed that pop up technologies have achieved better protection scores and commented that “early concerns about prohibitive cost and reliability of pop up hoods did not appear to come to fruition”4.
With the election of Donald Trump, however, the NHTSA action of pedestrian protection has been shelved. To make matters worse, in March this year President attacked the Japanese Government’s application of pedestrian protection tests, implying that this requirement was an example of an unfair trade practice.5 Describing the head impactor part of the regulation as a ‘bowling ball’ test Trump characteristically misunderstood the rule suggesting that US car hoods failed the test when they deformed. In fact, they failed because they are too rigid. Although dismissed as a joke by the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, she confirmed that President Trump was illustrating “the creative ways some countries are able to keep American goods out of their markets”.
All this is bad news for Theresa May as in the new Brexit White Paper she has made it clear that the UK will be applying a common rule book for goods and also rely on the UN’s system of vehicle standards. In her Mansion House speech in March, the Prime Minister confirmed “that UK and EU regulatory standards will remain substantially similar in the future”. The Prime Minister also said, “Many of these regulatory standards are themselves underpinned by international standards set by non-EU bodies of which we will remain a member – such as the UN Economic Commission for Europe, which sets vehicle safety standards”.
For hard Brexit enthusiasts this UN process has frequently been touted as a painless alternative to EU regulations. But unfortunately for them, Donald Trump’s hostility to multilateralism has now put the UN’s efforts to harmonize global vehicle standards in his firing line. In April, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on road safety that encouraged Member States to apply minimum levels of crashworthiness including for pedestrians6. At the end debate the US delegation took to the floor to specifically disassociate from the recommendations on vehicle safety and express “serious concerns” at any encouragement of other Member States to use the UN’s vehicle regulatory agreements. This undermines the UN’s global effort to harmonize technical standards which provides a predictable regulatory framework for the automotive industry and minimum levels of consumer protection.
Regardless of Brexit it would be politically impossible for Theresa May of any other British Government to abandon pedestrian protection whether mandated by the EU or through a UN regulation. Last year there were 24,540 pedestrian casualties on the UK’s roads of which 6,270 were either killed or seriously injured7. I doubt even the Daily Mail or the Sun could support a deal to allow US cars to be sold here that are more likely to smash the skulls, chests and legs of British adults and children.
Reducing so called vulnerable road user casualties is a major road safety priority today both in the UK and the EU. That is why in May this year the European Commission has proposed the mandatory fitment of autonomous emergency braking (AEB) a crash avoidance system which will help cut pre-collision speeds and even avoid impacts altogether. AEB technology includes pedestrian detection which in combination with existing bonnet softening requirements are expected to significantly reduce road casualties in the decade ahead. It would be scandalous and astonishing if the British Government objected to these new EU legislative proposals in which the UK’s TRL has again played a major role in developing.
Given that the UK is thankfully irrevocably committed to applying best practice in pedestrian protection technology they will inevitably become a ‘red line’ in any future trade deal with the US. And the only prospect for a successful UK/US automotive agreement is for Theresa May to insist that Donald Trump apply mandatory pedestrian protection and AEB in the US. She should tell him to put American pedestrians first not cars. Good luck with that Prime Minister!
1 See: https://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/trans/main/wp29/wp29wgs/wp29gen/wp29registry/ECE-TRANS-180a9e.pdf Global Technical Regulation (GTR) Number 9 was adopted by the United Nations World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29) under a 1998 Agreement to which the United States of America (USA) is a contracting party.
2 Federal Register (Vol. 80, No. 241, Part V, 78522 December 16, 2015)
6 See: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/72/271&referer=/english/&Lang=E
7 See: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/681593/quarterly-estimates-july-to-september-2017.pdf