Vacancy at the Top: Restoring Leadership to NHTSA is a Great Opportunity for President-elect Biden

Imagine if over the last four years your country had suffered over 140,000 deaths at the hands of terrorists. Imagine that your government had a dedicated agency to fight this scourge, but the country’s President couldn’t be bothered to appoint a head to run it. Sounds far-fetched? Well something like that has happened in the United States under President Donald Trump. The fatalities were caused by road crashes rather than terrorism and the agency has been the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rather than the Department of Homeland Security. But the preventable loss of life is still a horrific tragedy for all involved as President-elect Joe Biden – who lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash – knows all too well.

Look at the top of the organisation chart on NHTSA’s website and the position of Administrator is listed as vacant. It has been that way ever since President Trump took office. And vacancy is the perfect description for the Trump Administration’s attitude to NHTSA’s key responsibilities for traffic safety and vehicle fuel economy. President Trump’s wilful neglect of NHTSA has led to multiple backward steps allowing the US to fall behind international best practice in vehicle standards. But now President-elect Biden has a great opportunity to restore NHTSA’s leadership by appointing a new Administrator with a mandate to make up the lost ground of the last four wasted years.

There are some clear priorities for a new leader at NHTSA. A major area of concern is pedestrian safety. Over the last ten years the number of pedestrian fatalities on US roads increased by more than 50% whilst all other traffic deaths increased by only 2%. A key factor in this rising share of pedestrian deaths is the growing proportion of large sports utility vehicles and pick-ups. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety these oversize vehicles are 2-3 times more likely than cars to kill a pedestrian in a crash. To reverse these negative trends the Biden Administration should promote a package of measures that include highway engineering to separate vehicles from pedestrians, better speed management, and vehicle design.

For NHTSA pedestrian friendly vehicle standards should become a major priority. The crash avoidance technology automatic emergency braking (AEB) includes variants that have pedestrian detection. Basic AEB systems are now becoming more common in the US vehicle fleet as a result of a voluntary commitment made by 20 manufacturers to fit AEB by 1st September 2022. But progress is slower with pedestrian AEB and there is a strong case for regulatory action now by NHTSA. The US has also failed to implement global standards widely applied in other high-income countries to soften car fronts to make them less harmful to pedestrians in the event of a crash.

Since 2005 all passenger cars sold in the European Union must pass pedestrian protection requirements to soften the bonnet and bumper to reduce head, chest and leg injuries when a person is struck by a vehicle. At an international level the United Nations Global Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations later adopted a global technical regulation on pedestrian safety in 2009. Although involved in the development of this standard the US did not adopt it as a mandatory Federal requirement. Instead NHTSA planned to include it in their New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) which provides safety ratings to US consumers. In a upgrade1 proposed in 2015 NHTSA 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”.

With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, however, the US NCAP upgrade was shelved and the opportunity for action on pedestrian protection lost. To make matters worse, in 2018 President Trump attacked the Japanese Government’s application of pedestrian protection tests, implying that this safety standard was an example of an unfair trade practice2. 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 fail because they are too rigid.

Not content with inaccurately attacking other countries safety standards, the Trump administration also tried to undermine the the UN’s efforts to harmonize global vehicle standards. In 2018 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on road safety that encouraged Member States to apply minimum standards for both crash protection and avoidance. At the end debate the US delegation took to the floor to specifically disassociate from, inter alia, the recommendations on vehicle safety and expressed “serious concerns” at any encouragement of other Member States to use the UN’s vehicle regulatory agreements.

President Trump’s short-sighted attempt to sabotage multilateral co-operation in vehicle standards is simply not in the long-term interests of the US. It merely discourages efforts to promote a level playing field for trade in automobiles which provide at least minimum levels of consumer protection. Nor is it consistent with the actions of previous Republican Administrations. For example, in 2006, during the Presidency of George Bush Jnr, then NHTSA Administrator, Dr Jeff Runge led the adoption of a UN global regulation for Electronic Stability Control (ESC) that he had also introduced as a Federal standard. This anti-skid device helps to avoid one third of fatal crashes. Over the last decade ESC fitment rates in new passenger cars have doubled to reach nearly 80% worldwide. This huge improvement in vehicle safety is a powerful example of the positive result of strong US global leadership in advancing life-saving technologies.

In August this year the UN General Assembly adopted a new resolution which mandates a new Decade of Action for Road Safety with a target to halve road deaths by 2030. Once again, the UN is calling for global harmonization of minimum vehicle safety standards, including for pedestrians, and encouraging consumer information through NCAPs. The resolution also proposes a high-level meeting on global road safety at the UN General Assembly not later than 2022. This will give Heads of Government a unique platform to highlight their commitments to achieve the new UN target to cut by 50% the 1.3 million people killed each year in road crashes. Hopefully it will be a perfect opportunity for then President Biden to demonstrate US leadership on road safety that has been so gratuitously squandered by his vanquished opponent in the 2020 election.

NHTSA also has a key role in restoring US leadership on climate change. Earlier this year the Trump Administration weakened President Obama’s fuel economy standards which are set by NHTSA. These would have required increases in fuel efficiency of 5% per year by 2026 to achieve a fleet average of 46.7 miles per gallon (mpg). Trump’s alternative reduced the fuel efficiency target to 1.5%, raising average fuel economy to 46.7 mpg. Foolishly encouraged by the now defunct US Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, this ‘roll back’ effort, however, turned out to be a massive own goal.

It set up a predictable legal struggle with California and 22 other states determined to maintain strong action to reduce vehicle emissions. Ultimately it succeeded only in dividing the manufacturers among themselves. BMW, Ford, Honda and Volkswagen reached a voluntary agreement with California to maintain tougher standards; whilst Fiat Chrysler, General Motors and Toyota sided with the White House. Far from achieving a single US wide framework for fuel economy all President Trump and the auto industry lobby achieved was to accentuate divisions over the long-term direction of US policy.

With President-elect Biden pledged to recommit the US to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, it is sure that NHTSA will soon reinstate and possibly advance the Obama rules. The Democratic led House has already proposed reductions of at least 6% from 2026. Biden’s election platform has also promised $400 billion of clean energy investments heralding a big step up in US Government support for electric vehicles and advance battery technology. These are the kind of policies that the US and other major economies must adopt as they strive to become net carbon neutral by 2050.

From an international perspective the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the US is a massive opportunity to reinvigorate the global effort to make road transport safer and more sustainable. For many of the last fifty years the US was a leader in safety and environmental protection that the rest of the world looked up to. Over the last four years that reputation has been sadly diminished. But now at the start of a new decade in which bold steps are needed to reduce both road deaths and emissions the change of US leadership is so important. President Trump’s residency at the White House and the vacancy at the top of NHTSA are ending not a moment too soon!

1 Federal Register (Vol. 80, No. 241, Part V, 78522 December 16, 2015)