Statement of Center for Auto Safety Executive Director Clarence Ditlow on NHTSA’s
Release of Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) Highway Death Figures for 2005
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released the latest example of its failure to seriously address the challenges of the continuing high toll of highway fatalities. Not only have fatalities overall increased, the rate has increased, showing the effect of the Bush Administration having done little to improve safety beyond what Congress has mandated.
NHTSA’s 2005 death figures strongly show the need for effective rollover-roof crush standards, even though the agency’s press release makes only scant reference to the alarming rollover death statistics. They show that although overall passenger vehicle occupant fatalities were down by 1.4 percent (451 fewer deaths in 2005 than in 2004), deaths in rollovers increased during the same period by 2.1 percent (226 more deaths in 2005 than 2004). Rollover deaths in vans and pickup trucks played an especially large role in the increase.
The rise in rollover deaths is particularly disturbing because NHTSA is currently proposing a so-called "upgrade" of its roof crush standard, FMVSS 216, that is so weak even the agency acknowledges it would have prevented no more than 44 of the 10,810 rollover deaths that occurred in 2005. The increase in rollover deaths between 2004 and 2005 was more than five times greater than the tiny number of lives NHTSA’s proposed "upgrade" would save. This should motivate NHTSA’s new administrator to direct the agency’s staff to develop and issue a real upgrade of FMVSS 216 – one that at long last will start to meaningfully counteract the needless rollover fatalities and severe injuries that result from the current crush-prone roofs of so many pickup trucks, vans, SUVs and other passenger vehicles.
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A small bright spot is the decrease in passenger car occupant fatalities that occurred despite the fact that passenger car rollover fatalities increased. This is primarily due to the major improvements in the crashworthiness and occupant restraint in passenger cars. These improvements were the result of major rulemaking actions a decade or more ago and of pressure on manufacturers to improve passenger car safety from consumer information from NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The reduction in the proportion of very aggressive, truck-based SUVs in the vehicle mix made a small contribution despite the overall increase in the number of SUVs in the fleet.
NHTSA has also neglected to require any improvement in the safety belt use reminders in new vehicles despite the fact that belt use is required in every state except New Hampshire. Although the agency claims that the law does not permit it to require more effective reminders, that is a flawed reading of the law. Furthermore, NHTSA has made no attempt to have the law amended so that it can issue a meaningful requirement for safety belt use reminders.
Although NHTSA has made alcohol programs a high priority and has put a major part of its budget toward alcohol programs, the ten year trend in alcohol-related fatalities is virtually unchanged. NHTSA either needs to change its approach or to redirect its funding and priorities toward other areas where it may be more successful.
The major ten year increase in motorcycle rider fatalities is primarily due to the increase in motorcycle use over that period, but was also due to the repeal of motorcycle helmet laws and lower enforcement of the laws that are on the books.
Although the agency claims a significant decrease in the number of people injured in crashes, the data includes mostly minor to moderate injuries that have little consequence beyond a visit to the emergency room. Unfortunately, NHTSA permitted the funding for its National Accident Sampling System to fall far below what is necessary to determine the rate of serious to critical injuries in crashes: those that result in major head injuries, quadriplegia, severe burns, and other injuries that result in permanent disability or disfigurement.
The consequence of the drastic underfunding of its crash investigation program is that we, as a nation, are virtually driving blind to the number and causes of the most serious injuries in crashes. If the Administration is unwilling to request the few tens of millions of dollars for a high quality accident data program, Congress should appropriate the money and require that NHTSA improve its data collection.
This report should be a wake-up call to NHTSA to concentrate its efforts to reduce rollover casualties — particularly in SUVs, pickups, and vans — and to take more seriously the need for effective safety belt use reminders in all new vehicles. The agency must also redouble its efforts to get states to pass and enforce motorcycle helmet laws.
The entire report may be accessed at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/ncsa/ppt/2006/810639.pdf