Statement on the 50th Anniversary of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

  • September 15, 2020
150 150 Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, September 15, 2020
CONTACT: Pete Daniels, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety / / 301-442-2249 (C)


Statement on the 50th Anniversary of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Webinars celebrating past successes belie lack of recent progress and an over-reliance on ineffective nonbinding guidance


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970 with the mission of reducing the number of deaths, injuries, and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes.  While a series of “pat on the back” online discussions this week will focus on progress made over the last 50 years, in reality this agency is failing to meet the moment.  Just today, the National Safety Council released statistics for the first half of 2020 showing fatality rates on our roadways are estimated to have increased 20 percent.  Clearly more can and must be done to address this disturbing and distressing uptick.

NHTSA’s lack of progress on minimum performance standards for crash avoidance technology is a prime example of a missed opportunity to save lives through improved auto safety.  Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) including automatic emergency braking (AEB), blind spot warning (BSW) and lane departure warning (LDW) should be required as standard equipment on all new vehicles.  Instead, these proven safeguards are often offered as part of luxury add-on packages.  In 2016, NHTSA helped broker a voluntary agreement with auto makers to equip their vehicles with automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems, as standard equipment, by 2023.  Yet, as of the beginning of 2020, five manufacturers had compliance rates below 40 percent, including GM with a compliance rate of only 29 percent and Fiat / Chrysler with a compliance rate of a mere 10 percent.  The voluntary agreement has not sufficiently accelerated marketplace saturation, has allowed companies to lag way behind others and has set an unacceptably low bar for the capability and performance of the technology.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates) Board member and the fifth Administrator of NHTSA Joan Claybrook said, “Congress clearly recognized the effectiveness of safety requirements over toothless voluntary agreements when it enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966.  NHTSA does have a positive story to tell about hundreds of thousands of lives saved thanks to efforts by the agency.  According to the agency’s own statistics, between 1975 and 2017, 11,606 lives have been saved because of proper child restraints, 374,276 lives have been saved due to seat belt use, and 50,475 have been saved by frontal airbags.  However, that legacy is in danger today.  More than 36,000 people are dying each year in motor vehicle crashes.  Yet this agency has been failing to take commonsense, proactive steps to reduce this needless toll.”

Advocates also urges NHTSA to revamp its approach on a safety issue with the potential for profound implications in the future: autonomous vehicles (AVs).  NHTSA’s current “hands off” approach to “hands free” driving with the AV TEST initiative is completely insufficient.  Asking AV manufacturers to provide data on a voluntary basis is fraught with problems including the likelihood that data submitted will not include essential safety information or be uniform or timely.  Simply put, it will be completely unreliable and unusable.  Instead NHTSA should begin a rulemaking process that will ensure this evolving technology meets basic safety requirements, including a “vision test” that could verify an AVs ability to “see” and properly respond to all participants and aspects of the operating environment.

In addition to a lack of effective action on crash avoidance technology and autonomous vehicles, NHTSA is far behind in completing congressionally mandated rulemakings that would improve the safety of rear seat passengers, upgrade child passenger protection and advance commercial motor vehicle safety.

Over the past 50 years, when NHTSA has taken action to require auto safety upgrades, the results have been dramatic.  Today we call upon NHTSA and the U.S. Department of Transportation to honor this history over the next 50 years by working vigorously to ensure that all road users benefit from the next generation of auto safety improvements.


Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety is an alliance of consumer, medical, public health, law enforcement and safety groups and insurance companies and agents working together to make America’s roads safer.  Advocates’ mission is the adoption of federal and state laws, policies and programs that prevent motor vehicle crashes, save lives, reduce injuries, and contain costs.