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.

Pedestrian and Bicyclist Fatalities Up? More data flaws!

California Walks tweeted an LA Times articles entitled Highway deaths at lowest level since 1949; bike, truck fatalities rise. The misinformation and misunderstanding in the article includes:

The article misses that the Traffic Safety Fact: 2011 Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview (TSF), linked from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) press release, also shows that the injury rate per vehicle mile traveled (VMT) has been flat for three years. What does this mean? It probably means that the number of crashes has not declined, just the likelihood of fatality in a crash. The rate per VMT is the only useful measure of traffic safety. Fatality counts and injury counts are a mis-measure because they are affected by the rate of driving and a number of other factors, rather than the safety of driving.

The TSF provides counts of pedestrian fatalities, up 3%, and bicyclists (the NHTSA uses the obscure term pedalcyclists), up 8.7%. To go with the counting game, this is an increase of 130 dead pedestrians and 54 dead bicyclists in just one year. No statistics are presented on the fatality rate per bicycle mile traveled. Why? I believe that it is because NHTSA is too lazy or too disinterested to compile information on bicycle miles traveled. Though pedestrian miles traveled would be difficult to compile, at least a rate could be developed per pedestrian trip, which would be a more accurate measure of the rate of fatalities. Again, the NHTSA can’t be bothered. I am certainly not the first to point out that pedestrian and bicyclist fatality counts are a mis-measure of safety, yet the federal, state, and local governments continue to ignore the issue.

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