Statement for House Hearing “Legislation to Make Cars in America Safer”

  • July 23, 2019
150 150 Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

JULY 24, 2019



Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates) is a coalition of public health, safety, and consumer organizations, insurers and insurance agents that promotes highway and auto safety through the adoption of federal and state laws, policies and regulations.  Advocates is unique both in its board composition and its mission of advancing safer vehicles, safer motorists and road users, and safer roads.

Deaths and Injuries on Our Nation’s Roads Remain Unacceptably High

In 2017, more than 37,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were injured in motor vehicle crashes.[1]  Estimates for 2018 show a slight projected decrease in crash fatalities of approximately one percent.  These figures do not account for non-traffic motor vehicle crashes and incidents that happen off of public roads, which claim thousands of additional lives and result in tens of thousands more injuries each year.  Moreover, crashes impose a financial toll of over $800 billion in total costs to society and $242 billion in direct economic costs, equivalent to a “crash tax” of $784 on every American.  This incredibly high level of carnage and expense would not be tolerated in any other mode of transportation.

Available Commonsense and Cost-Effective Solutions

While far too many lives are lost and people are injured on our Nation’s roads each year, proven solutions are currently available that can prevent or mitigate these senseless tragedies.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) currently values each life lost in a crash at $9.6 million.  Each one of these preventable losses not only irreparably harms families and communities, but they also impose significant costs on society that can be avoided.  While we are optimistic that in the future autonomous vehicles (AVs) may bring about meaningful and lasting reductions in motor vehicle crashes, that potential remains far from a near-term reality.   Yet, we have actions that can be taken immediately on the path to fully driverless cars.  We urge you to take swift action on the following recommendations for safety advances.

Pass the Hot Cars Act of 2019 (H.R. 3593) to Prevent Vehicular Heatstroke Deaths

Already this year, at least 21 children have died in hot cars.  During the short period of time from when this Subcommittee held its May 23 hearing on this issue, which featured compelling testimony by Advocates’ Consumer Co-Chair Janette Fennell, Founder and President of, and the heart-wrenching account of Miles Harrison unknowingly leaving his son, Chase, in his car, 12 children have died.  While a majority of the overall cases of vehicular heatstroke deaths involve a child being unknowingly left in a vehicle, over 25 percent result from children getting into a car on their own, on average.  Last year a record number of annual vehicular heatstroke fatalities occurred, with at least 52 children being killed.  Since 1990, approximately 900 children have been killed and many have been seriously and permanently injured in these tragic and preventable circumstances.[2]  (See Attachment A.)

While it may be unthinkable that a child, especially an infant or toddler, could be left in a car, it is an all-too-frequent problem.  Neuroscience experts and other scientific researchers have shown that common circumstances such as work demands, stress, fatigue or change in routine can all lead to this injurious and deadly outcome.  According to Dr. David Diamond, Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of South Florida, “This phenomenon must be explained from a brain science perspective, not one that blames parents for being negligent.”[3]  (See Attachment B.)  Even the most loving, caring and responsible parents and caregivers can succumb to these conditions and make this mistake.  For example just two weeks ago on July 9th, the three-year-old son of a professor at the University of Southern Indiana (USI) died in a hot car on the USI campus after the professor forgot to drop him off at the USI Children’s Learning Center.[4]  People are not infallible; that’s why vehicles already have reminder systems for headlights, keys, doors and regular maintenance.  It is time to take action on requiring the most vital alert of them all, one that can save a life.

Fortunately, legislation has been introduced to solve this problem.  Advocates thanks and commends Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) and Congressman Peter King (R-NY) for sponsoring the bipartisan Hot Cars Act of 2019 (H.R. 3593) which requires all new cars to be equipped with a detection system to alert that a child is unattended inside the vehicle.  The bill directs the United States Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) to issue a final rule by two years after enactment to accomplish this lifesaving goal.  A number of suppliers and manufacturers already have unattended occupant detection technology commercially available.  I’d like to now show a brief video to highlight this remarkable feature.[5]

As you can see from that demonstration, lives can be saved using technology on the market today.  While automakers continue to spend billions of dollars on developing driverless cars, which is speculative technology that may save lives in the future, this detection technology is available now for approximately $20-40, according to suppliers.  Moreover, that figure will drop significantly once the technology becomes standard equipment, just as it did for rearview cameras and airbags.

Additionally, such detection systems may have other useful applications.  For example, this type of technology could detect whether or not occupants are properly restrained and may satisfy requirements for occupant protection.  Specifically, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) Act directed the U.S. DOT to issue a rule requiring rear seat belt reminders in all new cars by October 2015.[6]  This regulation, which is long overdue, could be potentially met by an occupant detection sensor.  In the future, as driverless cars are deployed, this type of technology could communicate to the AV system that the car is occupied and would support determining if those occupants are restrained properly.

We are coming off of a major heatwave that gripped much of the U.S. for the past week, and more hot days of summer are still ahead.  Unfortunately, public education alone is inadequate to overcome this innately human problem.  Offering the detection technology as optional equipment at an additional cost will similarly not solve the problem because no one thinks this tragedy will happen to them.  Congress must swiftly enact this legislation.  Children’s lives are hanging in the balance.

Pass the PARK IT (Protecting Americans from the Risks of Keyless Ignition Technology) Act (H.R. 3145) to Curb Risks Associated with Carbon Monoxide and Vehicle Rollaway

Vehicles are increasingly being equipped with keyless ignition systems, also known as push-button starts, which offer consumers the convenience of not having to use keys to start the vehicle.  In fact, according to Edmunds, in 2018 keyless ignitions were standard equipment on nearly two-thirds of vehicles sold – up from just 11 percent in 2008.  While these systems have increased ease of use by allowing drivers to unlock, start and turn off their cars without keys, they have also introduced new safety risks that unfortunately can be deadly.

Just this month, at least two people have died of carbon monoxide poisoning after unknowingly leaving their car running in the garage.  David Clifford, a 77-year-old man from Glenmont, NY was found dead in his home on July 6th, and Connie Dotson, a 54-year-old woman who was deaf died in her home in Lexington, KY on July 9th.  These two recent deaths highlight dangers of carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless and potentially fatal gas, which is emitted by a vehicle that has been left turned on and running.  The PARK IT Act (H.R. 3145) would help address this problem by requiring that a vehicle equipped with a keyless ignition and an internal combustion engine automatically shut off after a set time of idling.  This important safeguard would help assure that a vehicle stops running before deadly levels of carbon monoxide are accumulated.

Keyless ignitions have also contributed to crashes involving vehicle rollaway.  This problem tragically made national headlines in 2016 when Anton Yelchin, an actor known most famously for his role as Pavel Chekov in three Star Trek films, was crushed in his driveway by his Jeep Grand Cherokee as it rolled backwards, pinning him between a mailbox and security fence.  As vehicles with keyless ignitions do not require a key to turn off and can be nearly silent when still on, drivers can exit the vehicle while it is still in gear.  This can lead to the driver being struck by her/his own vehicle or the vehicle continuing unabated, potentially striking objects or people in its path.  The legislation would require that the U.S. DOT issue a final rule to require that manufacturers install technology to prevent movement of the vehicle under specified conditions.

We applaud the leadership of Chairwoman Schakowsky, together with Representatives Darren Soto (D-FL), Seth Moulton (D-MA), Joseph Kennedy (D-MA), Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX), for introducing this important bill and urge Congress to enact it.

Take Action Now to Combat the Persistently High Number of Impaired Driving Crashes

On average, an alcohol-impaired driving fatality occurs every 48 minutes on America’s streets.  In 2017, 10,874 people were killed in crashes involving a drunk driver, accounting for nearly a third of all traffic fatalities.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has consistently listed ending impaired driving on their Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements, including the 2019-2020 list released earlier this year.[7]  Moreover, when drug and alcohol use are combined, known as “polyuse”, the effects of impairment for a driver can be amplified.

A number of actions exist that Congress could take to curb alcohol impaired driving.  Specifically, they should direct the U.S. DOT to issue a minimum standard requiring all new vehicles to be equipped with passive sensor technology that prevents a vehicle from moving if the blood alcohol content (BAC) of the driver is above a certain level.  Additionally, states should be incentivized to lower the BAC while driving limit to 0.05 percent.  Moreover, 17 states still do not have a lifesaving law requiring ignition interlock devices (IIDs) for all offenders.  (See Attachment C.)  States that do not yet have this vital law should be required to enact it by a date certain or face a sanction.

Relatedly, Congress could take action on drug-impaired driving by providing additional resources to educate and train law enforcement officers such as through the Advanced Roadside Impairment Driving Enforcement Program (ARIDE), Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) and Standard Field Sobriety Testing (SFST) training programs.  Funds should also be authorized to accelerate research and development for verified roadside testing technology, improve data collection and analysis, and determine a level of impairment for marijuana use and a causal link to drug involved crashes, fatalities and injuries.

Advocates looks forward to working with the Subcommittee on ways to reduce the scourge of impairment on our roads.

Countermeasures to Prevent Distracted Driving Must be Advanced

In 2017, crashes involving a distracted driver claimed 3,166 lives.  Crashes in which at least one driver was identified as being distracted impose an annual economic cost of $40 billion, based on 2010 data.  Issues with underreporting crashes involving cell phones remain because of differences in police crash reporting, database limitations, and other challenges.  It is clear from an increasing body of safety research, studies and data that the use of wireless electronic devices for communications (such as mobile phones and text messaging), telematics and entertainment can readily distract drivers from the driving task.

Numerous devices and applications, which pose a substantial risk for distracted driving, are being built into motor vehicles.  Yet, NHTSA has merely issued non-binding guidelines which recommend, but do not require, that clearly unsafe electronic devices should not be installed in vehicles.  This approach does not prohibit manufacturers from installing electronic communications devices that have highly distracting features and will not prevent manufacturers from disregarding the agency guidelines.  Advocates urges Congress to direct the U.S. DOT to issue regulations strictly limiting the use of electronic communication and information features that can be operated while driving and prohibiting the use of those features that cannot be conducted safely while driving. 

Additionally, improvements to the National Priority Safety Incentive Grant Program are needed to encourage states to pass strong safety laws and qualify for money to undertake efforts to combat distracted driving.  Congress should pass the SAFE TO DRIVE Act (H.R. 2416), which would add opportunities for states to improve distracted driving laws and qualify for distracted driving incentive grant awards as well as improve transparency for states in determining grant eligibility.

Legislation Should be Enacted to Make Advanced Driver Assistance Systems Standard

Every day on average, over 100 people are killed and 7,500 people are injured in motor vehicle crashes.  Advanced vehicle technologies, also known as advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), can prevent and lessen the severity of crashes and should be required as standard equipment on all new vehicles.  In fact, the NTSB has included increasing implementation of collision avoidance technologies in all of its recent Most Wanted Lists of Transportation Safety Improvements since 2016.[8]

Collision avoidance systems include automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane departure warning (LDW), blind spot detection (BSD), rear AEB and rear cross-traffic alert.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has found that:

  • AEB can decrease front-to-rear crashes with injuries by 56 percent;
  • LDW can reduce single-vehicle, sideswipe and head-on injury crashes by over 20 percent;
  • BSD can diminish injury crashes from lane change by nearly 25 percent;
  • Rear AEB can reduce backing crashes by 78 percent when combined with rearview camera and parking sensors; and,
  • Rear cross-traffic alert can reduce backing crashes by 22 percent. [9]

However, these safety systems are often sold as part of an additional, expensive trim package along with other non-safety features, or included only in high-end models or vehicles.  Moreover, there are currently no minimum performance standards to ensure they perform as expected.  Additionally, the IIHS has found that while nighttime visibility is essential for safety, few vehicles are equipped with headlights that perform well.  Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 108 should be upgraded to improve headlight performance.

We urge Congress to require that advanced technologies that have proven to be effective at preventing and mitigating crashes be standard equipment with minimum performance standards.  In a similar vein, Congress should enact the Safe Roads Act of 2019 (H.R. 3773) which directs the U.S. DOT to issue a final rule for AEB to be installed in all new trucks.  On the path to AVs, requiring minimum performance standards for these foundational technologies will ensure the safety of motorists in vehicles and all roads users sharing the driving environment with them, while also building consumer confidence in the capabilities of these technologies.

Commonsense Regulation of Experimental Driverless Car Technology is Essential

Autonomous vehicles (AVs), also known as driverless cars, are being developed and tested on public roads without sufficient safeguards to protect both those within the AVs and everyone sharing the roadways with them without express consent.  Numerous public opinion polls show a high skepticism and fear about the technology, and for good reason. (See Attachment D.)  At least six crashes resulting in four fatalities have occurred in the U.S. involving cars equipped with autonomous technology that are being investigated by the NTSB.

While AVs have tremendous promise to meaningfully reduce traffic crashes, fatalities and injuries once they are proven to be safe, they must be subject to minimum performance standards set by the U.S. DOT.  These standards should include, but not be limited to, cybersecurity, vehicle electronics, driver engagement for AVs that require a human driver to take over at any point, and a “vision test” for driverless cars to ensure they can properly detect and respond to their surroundings.  Relatedly, Advocates is opposed to further expanding exemptions from existing regulations beyond the reasonable cap of 2,500 vehicles currently in place for most automakers.  Section 24404 of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act allows unlimited testing of vehicles that do not have to comply with the FMVSS.[10]  Under this expansion, manufacturers have broad ability to test AVs.  Minimum performance requirements and protections will be especially critical as autonomous systems are deployed in commercial motor vehicles.  Furthermore, although AVs may increase access to mobility in the future, the varying needs of diverse disability communities, such as wheelchair users, must be addressed and safety must be ensured.

Along with sensible regulations for AVs, consumers and regulators must be given essential information, data and documentation about AVs, and not just descriptions which potentially could be accomplished with a glossy marketing brochure.  Consumers must be made aware of the limitations and capabilities of the technology in the owner’s manual and at the point of sale, as well as via a public website searchable by the vehicle identification number (VIN) that includes, at a minimum, vehicle information such as any exemptions from federal safety standards and the AV’s operational design domain (ODD).

The recent crashes involving the Boeing 737 MAX airplane tragically highlight the catastrophic results that can occur when automated technology potentially malfunctions and is not subject to thorough oversight.  Reports have indicated that many aspects of the plane’s certification were delegated to Boeing.  In addition, safety systems that could have assisted the pilots were not required as standard equipment but were offered as an option at an additional cost.  Lastly, both planes were being operated by experienced pilots who had extensive training.  In sharp contrast, there are no federal training requirements for individuals testing or operating automated vehicle technology or for the consumers who purchase these vehicles and are using them on public roads.

Congress should direct U.S. DOT to put these and other vital safeguards in place prior to the wide-scale deployment of unproven driverless cars onto public roads. (See Attachment E).

Crash Data Must be Collected and Available

At a minimum, data reflecting the performance of a vehicle including how the safety systems perform in a crash should be collected, recorded, accessible, and shared with appropriate federal agencies and researchers so that safety-critical problems can be identified.  Currently, vehicles are not required to be equipped with an event data recorder (EDR).  While there is a requirement for what data voluntarily-installed EDRs must capture, this information is insufficient to properly ascertain facts about crashes, especially as vehicles become more highly automated.  EDRs must be mandated for all vehicles and required to collect sufficient, standardized information to aid investigators and regulators in assessing performance, including for AVs.

 Connected Vehicle Technology with Potential to Offer Added Safety Benefits Should be Deployed

Connected vehicle technologies allow a vehicle to send and receive communications with other vehicles (vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V)) and the infrastructure (vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I)). These messages can relay information ranging from the relative location and direction of motion of other vehicles to warning messages that traffic lights are about to change or weather conditions are soon to be encountered.  These systems will likely help fill in gaps in the performance of AVs.  In 2017, NHTSA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to require V2V technology.[11]  However, despite the identified safety benefits of V2V technology, this rule is languishing at the U.S. DOT.  Congress should direct U.S. DOT to complete this rulemaking by a date certain.

 The Upward Trend of Fatalities among Vulnerable Road Users Must be Reversed

Deaths and injuries of pedestrians and bicyclists are unacceptably high.  Recently released estimates for 2018 show that despite a slight decrease in overall crash deaths, fatalities of pedestrians increased by four percent and pedalcyclist fatalities increased a staggering 10 percent.  These upticks follow fatalities of pedestrians and bicyclists hitting their highest levels in approximately 30 years in 2016.

Collisions involving vulnerable road users do not have to be a death sentence.  Vehicles can be designed, specifically in the front end, to reduce the severity of impacts with pedestrians and/or bicyclists.  Collision avoidance systems for pedestrians, like advanced AEB, also have promise to further reduce deaths and injuries.  Advocates continues to monitor research on the effectiveness of these systems and will support data-driven solutions to crashes involving vulnerable road users.

Moreover, the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) must be updated to include pedestrian crashworthiness and pedestrian crash avoidance, among other improvements.  The United States was the leader in developing NCAP 40 years ago when Advocates’ Board Member Joan Claybrook was at the helm of NHTSA, yet has fallen woefully behind our international counterparts in robust and comprehensive ratings of vehicle safety.  Additionally, upgrades to infrastructure such as protected intersections, dedicated paths, use of automated enforcement systems to curb speed and red light running, leading intervals for signaling, and other improvements could also offer pedestrians and bicyclists better protection to reduce the occurrence and severity of crashes.

In September 2018, the NTSB issued a Special Investigation Report on Pedestrian Safety, which reinforced the need to implement a number of these safety improvements.  We urge Congress to direct NHTSA to issue a standard for improved vehicle designs to reduce the severity of impacts with vulnerable road users and update NCAP to include pedestrian crashworthiness and pedestrian crash avoidance, among other essential improvements.

Safety Improvements are Needed to Address the Aging Population

In 2017, over 6,500 people age 65 and older were killed in traffic crashes – representing 18 percent of all traffic fatalities.  Advocates has developed federal legislative proposals addressing both human factors and vehicle design issues to improve the safety of older adults.  These recommendations include development of a crash test dummy representative of older occupants, revising NCAP to include a “Silver Car Rating”, and modifying the injury criteria used in crash tests to address the specific injury patterns suffered by older occupants.  We encourage the Subcommittee to examine issues particular to older Americans and advance these measures.

NHTSA Must be Sufficiently Funded and Given Additional Authorities

Ensuring NHTSA has adequate resources, funds and staff is a crucial priority for the agency to successfully carry out its mission “to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards, and enforcement.”  However, the agency is chronically underfunded.  Currently, 95 percent of transportation-related fatalities and 99 percent of transportation injuries, involve motor vehicles.  Yet, NHTSA receives only one percent of the overall DOT budget.

In recent years, millions of motor vehicles have been recalled for serious and fatal safety defects including faulty General Motors (GM) ignition switches and exploding Takata airbags.  Nonetheless, used cars can still be sold and leased with open recalls – a significant loophole that should be closed.  Additionally, NHTSA should be given the ability to take immediate action, known as imminent hazard authority, when the agency determines that a defect substantially increases the likelihood of serious injury or death if not remedied promptly.  Further, NHTSA should be given the authority to pursue criminal penalties in appropriate cases in which corporate officers who acquire actual knowledge of a product danger that could lead to serious injury or death and knowingly and willfully fail to inform NHTSA and warn the public.  Considering the unacceptably high number of fatalities and injuries on our Nation’s roads, the prevalence of recalls, and the new responsibilities incumbent upon the U.S. DOT as AVs are developed and deployed, NHTSA must have additional resources and authorities to effectively oversee vehicle safety.



Advocates commends the Subcommittee for holding this vital hearing on “Legislation to Make Cars in America Safer.”  With crashes, deaths, injuries and costs needlessly high, the recommendations outlined above should be implemented with urgency.  While fully driverless cars may have a future potential to reduce the carnage on our roads, commonsense, lifesaving solutions can and must be implemented now.  Advocates looks forward to continuing to work with the Subcommittee to make our Nation’s roads safer for all.

[1] Statistics are from the U.S. Department of Transportation unless otherwise noted.

[2] Statistics provided by

[3] David Diamond, Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of South Florida, “A Scientific Perspective on Why Parents Forget Children in Cars,” Press Event (June 7, 2017).

[4] Tori Fater and Mark Wilson, Child dies after being left in hot car, Vanderburgh sheriff says; father was USI employee, Evansville Courier & Press (Jul. 9, 2019).


[6] Pub. L 112-141, Sec. 31503 (2012).

[7] NTSB, 2019-2020 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

[8] NTSB Most Wanted List Archives,

[9] IIHS, Real world benefits of crash avoidance technologies, available at:

[10] Pub. L. No. 114-94 (2015).

[11] 82 F.R. 3854 (Jan. 12, 2017).