Former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook Criticizes DOT-Auto Makers Safety Deal Cut Behind Closed Doors

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.


For Immediate Release.
Contact Joan Claybrook: 202-364-8755, 202-422-6731
[email protected] 


January 15, 2016

Today’s announcement that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is collaborating with the auto industry to develop “Proactive Safety Principles” is a dramatic step in the wrong direction especially following a year of record recalls and an increase in motor vehicle fatalities.  The set of four principles is toothless, lacks any implementation authority and is worth only the cost of the paper they are written on. There is nothing preventing the auto industry from disregarding or outright violating these principles.  In fact they could be considered subterfuge to violate reporting requirements by doing “data dumps”.  The safety of the American public will not be best protected with a kumbaya between the federal agency charged with issuing regulation and the industry seeking to avoid regulation.  Also completely absent from this “Best Friends Forever (BFF) moment” between DOT and the auto industry are the people NHTSA was created to protect—car users. 

In fact, a reader of the “Principles” document would not know that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was created in large measure to regulate the auto industry, with substantial authority to issue motor vehicle safety standards to protect vehicle occupants in a crash, conduct research independently of the auto industry on which to base such standards, to require the recall of vehicles with safety defects and that do not comply with NHTSA’s standards, and to sue companies that refuse to do so.

The “Principles” document emphasizes that 94% of all vehicle crashes are “attributable to driver choices and human error,” but amazingly it omits the fact that most vehicle crash DEATHS and INJURIES prevented result from the improved vehicle safety performance largely based on NHTSA’s many dozens of mandatory safety standards.   In fact, NHTSA estimates that over 600,000 deaths have been prevented by such safety rules since the 1960s when NHTSA was created.

Another contradiction is that NHTSA is now negotiating with the auto manufacturers to develop a “voluntary” (not mandatory) standard for Automatic Emergency Braking, rather than issue a required safety standard under its primary statutory authority.  This is the most important life-saving standard NHTSA could issue now. The crash prevention systems are already installed in a large number of higher end cars, showing it is feasible. Yet NHTSA is delegating the content of requirements to manufacturers under a process that is secret and excludes other  interested parties including consumers and suppliers; is not enforceable, under which any company can initially agree and then secretly discontinue compliance without informing car buyers or NHTSA; allows any company to charge additional prices for installation of the safety technology as optional equipment, often at high prices out of the reach of many consumers; undercuts the lower costs for standard equipment and faster deployment of a mandated regulation; and, also harms public confidence in NHTSA. 

As to achieving the goals outlined in the Principles, and taking each one as listed, the agency has the authority to take many steps it has failed or ignored to implement that would improve safety without hoping the vehicle manufacturers will act:

1. “Enhance and Facilitate Proactive Safety”: NHTSA already has numerous meetings and discussions with industry representatives on a regular basis in Detroit about key safety issues, at Society of Automotive Engineers and other technical group meetings, and hears industry concerns and issues both at NHTSA meetings with individual companies and in group meetings, and at Congressional hearings.   In addition companies submit detailed comments to agency rulemaking dockets, to the Early Warning Reporting of safety defects system, and through negotiations with NHTSA over submission of information about defective vehicles.


2. “Enhance Analysis and Examination of Early Warning Reporting Data”: Early Warning Reporting (EWR) can be improved by industry complying with existing federal law and filing accurate and timely reports (rather than ones designed to confuse the agency) and NHTSA enforcing this key rule and fining companies that abuse it.  EWR information should also be made public and the reporting categories should be consistent with the reporting codes for consumer complaints so it can be used effectively.

3. “Maximize Safety Recall Participation Rates”: The major steps companies can take to improve recalls is to conduct them on a timely basis (rather than covering them up and only publicly declaring a safety recall years later), sending strong and effective letters to consumers giving them the incentive to get their vehicles fixed (which NHTSA should monitor and enhance), and give priority to making replacement parts quickly rather than make them secondary to continued new vehicle production.  Also the DOT should encourage states to not issue new license tags to any consumer who has not complied with a defect recall correction notice sent by the manufacturer. 

4. “Enhance Automotive Cybersecurity”: NHTSA has new authority under the FAST Act of 2015 (the highway bill) (Pub. L. 114-94) to conduct cybersecurity research with other federal agencies – not the auto industry – and should do so independently of the industry.  Specifically, modal administrations of the DOT are charged with assisting in the development of cybersecurity research to “help prevent hacking, spoofing, and disruption of connected and automated transportation vehicles.’’