Reform NHTSA? Hmm…

Congratulations to Californian Steven Cliff on his appointment as interim administrator the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). See StreetsblogCal post Steven Cliff, from California Air Resources Board, Appointed Acting Head of National Highway and Traffic Safety for more information.

The agency has many areas of responsibility including vehicle safety and education. The agency mission is: “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for keeping people safe on America’s roadways.” The agency has for years (long predating Trump) seen its mission as making it safe for people inside vehicles, and has ignored any issues of safety for people outside vehicles. People have repeatedly asked that the agency address vehicle design that would make it safer for people outside, making it less likely that they would be hit by a driver, and more likely to survive if they were hit. Its education programs are rife with victim blaming and bias against walkers and bicyclists. Nearly everyone who is active in the walker and bicyclist safety profession rejects out of hand their educational materials as being so biased as to be unusable. Even though they have officially stopped using the discredited claim that driver behavior is responsible for 94% of crashes, they are still relaying and cheering on this garbage when other agencies and organizations use it.

NHTSA has promoted the ‘shared responsibility’ mythology, that all users of the road are equally responsible for safety, frequently seen along with the message that walkers and bicyclist must wear high visibility clothing, must carry lights, must never use cell phones, must be aware at all times of the hazard presented by motor vehicles and are responsible for avoiding those hazards. This is bullshit. Drivers of vehicles which are designed to be unsafe for people outside them, who think they own the road and that pedestrians and bicyclists should be somewhere else, should be responsible. These drivers are traveling along roadways that were designed to be unsafe for walkers and bicyclists by transportation agency engineers, who also should be responsible.

NHTSA does not have responsibility for roadway design, that lies with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). However, NHTSA has made no effort to work with FHWA to bring together concerns about the safety of vehicle design with the safety of roadway design. The agency view seems to be ‘not our problem’.

I encourage you to read Don Kostelec, who has been one of strongest voices highlighting the victim-blaming of agencies like NHTSA and the mis-design of roadways by engineers. He does a better job of this than I ever could.

20% of roadway fatalities in 2019 were what NHTSA calls ‘nonoccupant fatalities’, meaning people walking and bicycling. Or eating in cafes, or sleeping in their beds, or shopping in stores, or any number of other ways in which drivers kill people when departing the roadway. During the pandemic there has been a huge increase in poor (criminal) driver behavior, and after the pandemic there will be a large increase in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). In some places, vehicles miles traveled (VMT) has already increased nearly back to where it was before the pandemic, even though many people are taking few or no trips. Those who are taking trips have increased their motor vehicle use. This does not bode well. NHTSA does not directly contribute to this problem, but it has had a central role in absolving drivers of responsibility for crashes that kill and maim walkers and bicyclists, and for that, I hold them responsible.

7,338 walkers and bicyclist died on the roadways in 2019. The numbers will probably be similar in 2020, though some cities have seen huge increases. Ironically, the percentage of total fatalities may decrease since there has been such a huge increase, of about 1.5 times, in single vehicle crashes, mostly due to speeding. (https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/Publication/813054)

I don’t think that NHTSA can be reformed. The culture of windshield perspective and victim blaming is so deeply ingrained in the agency that, short of casting off all the administrators, department heads, and much of the employee base, no reform is possible. While other agencies and organizations at all government levels have shifted away from victim blaming and windshield bias, many kicking and screaming, NHTSA has not shifted. It is still stuck in the 1970s mindset that plagues transportation agencies, that the purpose of roadways is to move the maximum number of motor vehicles at the maximum possible speed.

So, Steven, I wish you the best of luck and professional success in this position, but I’m not holding my breath. The anti-safety culture is just too deeply embedded in NHTSA. Of that 7,338 people who died in 2019, I would guess that half of them would be alive today if NHTSA actually took its stated mission of roadway safety seriously.

Author: Dan Allison

Dan Allison is a Safe Routes to School Coordinator in the Sacramento area. Dan dances and backpacks, as much as possible.

One thought on “Reform NHTSA? Hmm…”

  1. I neglected to mention that if the Biden administration does adopt a Vision Zero policy, some of that work will be assigned to NHTSA, which means that the policy will likely fail.

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