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Watchdog to Audit Flawed U.S. Motor Vehicle Safety Program

Crash test dummies usually stand in for drivers and car passengers during safety trials — and are rarely used to test how safe vehicles are for pedestrians *outside* cars. Could a new audit help change that? Source: Peterson Airforce Base via Creative Commons.

Ultra-dangerous SUVs and light trucks have helped drive our national pedestrian death totals to the highest levels in 30 years —  but that's not what's prompting the federal government to look into strengthening our national vehicle safety standards.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General announced last week it would audit how well the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is enforcing the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Which sounds like good news, except for the fine print: those standards exist only to save the lives of drivers and passengers, and do literally nothing to protect the most vulnerable people on the road: walkers, cyclists, and assistive device users.

Depressingly, the audit was reportedly prompted not by the historic number of walking deaths on our roads, but by the Trump administration's attempts to grant safety standard exemptions to makers of autonomous vehicles in order to speed their rollout. Put another way: the Inspector General is fine with the idea of a non-professional driver piloting a 7,000-pound pick-up truck through your city, but might draw the line if automakers replaced the steering wheel on the same car with an artificial intelligence program. 

But some experts are optimistic that the audit could inadvertently prompt the Inspector General to investigate the safety agency's other epic failure: to fulfill its mission statement to "reduce deaths, injuries and economic losses from motor vehicle crashes," which it has failed to do since 2014.

"Throughout the history of automobile safety advocacy, consumer advocates have been saying that the agency hasn’t been moving quickly enough on this issue," said Matt Casale of the non-profit U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "The more that that message is uplifted, the more those issues are given the spotlight, the better off we are. ... Potentially, there may be some way that the audit can say, 'Y’know, the safety regulations, as they’re being enforced, aren’t actually following the letter of the law, because they aren't saving lives.' If the audit went in that direction, it could have a significant impact."

How killer vehicle design is fueling our traffic violence crisis

Whatever might have prompted federal watchdogs to finally take a look under the hood of our safety standards program, one thing is clear: the program is deeply broken and long overdue for an overhaul.

As the Inspector General's announcement itself notes, more than 36,000 Americans died in motor vehicle crashes last year, including a record 6,590 pedestrians. But what the office didn't note is that roughly 36,000 lives have been lost to traffic violence every year since 2015 — a disturbing reversal after years of reliable declines in motor vehicle deaths since the 1970s.

In 2014, the U.S. actually achieved its lowest per capita motor vehicle deaths since 1918 — and to understand why the death toll started trending up again, it's important to know a little about the history of vehicle safety standards themselves.

Since they were established as part of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, our national motor vehicle standards have been a key weapon in the fight to reduce vehicle fatalities on our road. These standards, like mandatory seat belts, air bags and anti-lock braking systems, have saved untold numbers of lives and driven deaths down ever since — even if other aspects of our dangerous transportation ecosystem, like increasingly dangerous road designs, have often counteracted their benefits.

Motor vehicle fatalities by year. Source: National Safety Council.
Motor vehicle fatalities by year. Source: National Safety Council 

But in the mid-1980s, the modern sport utility vehicle was invented — and, in the '90s, it began to surge in popularity. And the safety impacts of that dangerous trend alone would soon come to eclipse even the most astonishing advances in safety technology.

How cars with high "safety" ratings are causing more road deaths

For years, large vehicles like SUVs have met — and often, exceeded — America's vehicle safety standards, which focus exclusively on the safety of car occupants rather than pedestrians. But while it might seem paradoxical at first, these supposedly "safe" mega-cars have actually accelerated our traffic violence crisis — so much so that, today, the sheer preponderance of them on our roads is canceling out ongoing innovations in vehicle safety technology in the auto market overall.

In 2003, cars classified as crossovers, SUVs, large trucks, or vans made up just 35 percent of vehicles on our roadways. Today, that number has shot up to 75 percent, creating a majority class of vehicles whose occupants are themselves more likely to survive crashes, but are also more likely to kill the occupants of smaller cars (and far more likely to kill vulnerable road users who aren't encased in metal).

The driver of a small car who collides head-on with an SUV, for instance, is between 4.5 and 7.6 times more likely to be killed than the driver of the larger car, depending on the smaller car's safety ratings. If that same SUV driver hits a pedestrian, of course, he has roughly a 100 percent chance of survival, while the pedestrian has a 100 percent chance of dying if the mega-car is traveling faster than 40 miles per hour. 

Those deadly disparities have everything to do with vehicle design — and the lax standards that allow the worst models onto the roads.

Under current safety standards, easily available light trucks are legally allowed to weigh up to 8,500 pounds, be outfitted with bull bars that are proven to be so lethal they're banned in other countries, and adopt body styles with unnecessarily long hoods, flat grilles, towering driver heights, enormous blind spots, and other design features that studies have shown are more fatal in the event of collisions. Lighter, lower, and rounder vehicle designs are proven to be less fatal overall — but cars that meet that description are becoming so unpopular that automakers are increasingly phasing them out.

U.S. standards on large cars are so abysmal that British politicians are advocating for a ban on American-designed SUVs from trade agreements with the United Kingdom.

The preponderance of poorly regulated SUV designs helps explain why the U.S. has had such a hard time cutting its traffic death tolls, despite a majority of cars on our roads being rated as ultra-safe for their drivers. And it doesn't take an Inspector General's audit to know that a vehicle safety standards program that focuses almost exclusively on the safety of the occupants of vehicles rather than on the people those deadly vehicles might hit isn't going to save many lives in the long run.

Will an audit help?

A serious refresh of our motor vehicle safety standards could save lives — but advocates aren't holding their breath that the Inspector General audit will lead to new standards because even the most dangerous vehicle designs are following the letter of bad law.

"Unfortunately, the huge number of deaths on our roads is not illegal," said Casale. "The potential legal issue that the Inspector General is looking into is this: is the agency doing enough to enforce the already-existing safety standards to minimize that number? Whether those safety standards are effective is a separate question."

We would be wise to urge the watchdogs to dig deeper and force the National Traffic Safety Administration to actually carry out its mission of saving lives, starting — but not ending — with an unreserved ban on vehicle designs that make it far too easy for drivers to kill.

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