By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.
Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, NHTSA Administrator Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D., urged the members to support President Obama’s proposed $1.2 billion budget for the agency as the best chance to ensure that the astounding advances in automotive technology will meet their full safety potential. He also lobbied on behalf of the President’s proposed 10-year $3.9 billion commitment to automated vehicle development, calling it the most important single investment in NHTSA’s history (Rosekind Testimony, April 14, 2016).
Opening statements. Subcommittee Chair Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.) opened the NHTSA Oversight hearing by thanking Rosekind for his responsiveness to and straightforwardness with the subcommittee and by reminding him that NHTSA was committed to acting on the 17 recommendations issued by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General for improving the agency’s oversight of vehicle safety issues. Results of a recent audit of NHTSA’s progress on these recommendations were issued by the OIG in January, 2016. Burgess stressed that the significant increases in resources provided in the FAST Act NHTSA’s funding was dependent on the agency’s implementation of those recommendations.
Referencing a proactive safety agreement entered into between NHTSA and major auto manufacturers, Ranking Democratic member Janice Schakowsky (D-Ill.) used her opening statement to express concerns about the agency’s reliance on non-specific voluntary standards, stressing that strong, enforceable standards are vital in working toward improved safety. Ranking Member of the Energy & Commerce Committee Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) also questioned the agreement, stating that “[w]hile the agreement covers broad areas of auto safety, it is severely lacking in meaningful details.” Pallone also said he had serious reservations about the “closed-door process by which the agreement had been drafted and finalized” and that he also had concerns about its “lack of an enforcement mechanism to ensure that automakers follow through on their commitments.”
Both Burgess and Schakowsky expressed interest in hearing updates on the status of the Takada recalls as well as NHTSA’s plans to protect drivers from cybersecurity threats posed by new technology. Both representatives invited Rosekind to brief the subcommittee on the agency’s activities with regard to other technology developments including crash avoidance, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, and autonomous vehicles. After agreeing that he also was interested in learning more about NHTSA’s plans regarding the major technological shifts in the automotive industry, Rep. Pallone insisted that Congress address the deficiencies that are plaguing this industry already. Echoing concerns expressed by Burgess and Schakowsky, Pallone pointed out that the last several years have been plagued with massive and highly publicized recalls involving General Motors ignition switches, Takata air bags, and Toyota unintended acceleration. Despite the highly publicized nature of these recalls, the Democratic staff memo summarizing the meeting indicated that more than 20 percent of recalled cars are never repaired, leaving tens of millions of cars with safety defects on the road. The recall completion rate is 44 percent for vehicles 5-10 years old and 15 percent for vehicles older than 10 years. Burgess, Schakowsky, and Rosekind all referenced the most recent fatality linked to an exploding Takata airbag in a low-speed collision. According to Rosekind—who pointed out that the vehicle was purchased used, the family claimed that they never received the numerous recall notices sent by the manufacturer.
Rosekind’s remarks. In support of the proposed budget, Rosekind focused on the four broad areas in which the agency is focusing its efforts: (1) promoting safe behavior and reducing dangerous actions on the nation’s roads; (2) improving the safety performance of vehicles through regulation and non-regulatory means; (3) working to identify and address unreasonable risks to safety through the defect recall process; and (4) creating a proactive safety culture within the auto industry. Citing human error as the greatest threat to highway safety, Rosekind lauded the decades of success achieved through its partnership with the states in building a highly effective model to combat unsafe behaviors such as impairment through alcohol, drugs, fatigue or distraction, recklessness and speeding, or other unsafe behavior. In order to continue this work, NHTSA has held a series of traffic safety events designed to engage stakeholders and the public in helping to find ways to meet the challenge of reducing motor vehicle crashes, injuries and fatalities.
In conjunction with its behavioral safety efforts, NHTSA has moved forward with several regulatory measures designed to increase the level of safety in the vehicles on the road. These regulatory efforts include a final rule requiring electronic stability control on heavy vehicles, and two proposed rules, one which would protect consumers from unsafe novelty motorcycle helmets that do not meet federal safety standards and a second that would improve truck safety by upgrading the current rear impact guards on trucks and trailers. Referencing an important non-regulatory safety tool, Rosekind mentioned that NHTSA has requested comments on its planned new 5-Star Ratings program, which the agency plans to implement in 2018 for Model Year 2019 vehicles. According to Rosekind, the 5-Star Ratings program has incentivized vehicle safety advances with life-saving benefits. In addition to formal rulemaking efforts, NHTSA declared that every student on a school bus should have access to a three-point belt system and garnered a commitment from 20 automakers to make automatic emergency braking (AEB) a standard feature on all new vehicles no later than 2022.
Rosekind went on to advise the subcommittee of its efforts to ensure that new technology designed to protect safety is deployed in such a way that maximizes its safety potential. In the past year, NHTSA issued a proposed rule (currently under interagency review) that would require all new vehicles to be capable of V2V and vehicle-to-infrastructure-communications. Research by DOT and NHTSA shows that just two applications of this technology—addressing intersection and left-turn collisions—could prevent more than 600,000 crashes and save more than 1,000 lives every year.
NHTSA is also moving quickly on autonomous vehicle technology, Rosekind noted, citing the President’s 10-year $3.9 billion commitment as key in allowing the agency to pursue large-scale deployment pilots to test autonomous vehicles and connected vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the country and to work with industry to ensure a “common multi-state interoperability framework for autonomous and connected vehicles.”
Addressing the issues raised with regard to the Takata air bag recall and remedy process, Rosekind reminded the subcommittee that in the past year, DOT and NHTSA had launched an unprecedented effort to coordinate and accelerate the Takata recalls. That effort resulted in a Coordinated Remedy Order that evidenced the most aggressive use of the agency’s enforcement authority in its history. Rosekind stressed, however, that if regulations and enforcement were the agency’s only tools to protect the public, then the agency will be forced to continue the same old “cat-and-mouse games” between the regulator and the regulated. Instead, Rosekind advocated that government and industry collaborate, as was done in reaching the proactive safety agreement, to identify and address safety problems and to improve the pace at which recalled vehicles are repaired.
Also testifying before the subcommittee were: John Bozzella, CEO of Global Automakers; Mitch Bainwol, President and CEO of Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers; Ann Wilson, Senior Vice President of Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association; Michael Wilson, CEO of Automotive Recyclers Association; and Jacqueline S. Gillan, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
MainStory: TopStory MotorVehiclesNews
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