Are Traffic Safety Laws Really Keeping You Safe?

When you step behind the wheel of your car and turn that ignition, you hope everything is going to work as it should. For the most part, it does on a consistent basis. However, when you consider that by some estimates there can be anywhere between 1,700 to 2,200 parts in each car, it is a wonder it doesn’t break down more often.

The government agency tasked with making sure all those parts are performing as they should is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. This is the organization that generates all those recalls you read about in the news. You should feel good that someone is keeping a watch on your car, right?

Unfortunately, there are concerns that the NHTSA isn’t performing at peak efficiency. Those concerns aren’t from a consumer group, but a federal audit by the Department of Transportation. In other words, attention must be paid.

Slow to React

The major complaint with the NHTSA is that it is slow to react to a safety issue. This cropped up with the Toyota acceleration problem. Back in 2011, the first complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyota cars first reached the attention of the NHTSA. However, it was felt that the agency dragged its feet in terms of getting the data out of Toyota and compelling it to initiate a response.

Meanwhile, those faulty ignition switches were linked to 124 deaths and 275 injuries. When the dust was settled, Toyota recalled 14 million of its vehicles from around the globe. There was also a fine leveled against Toyota. Obviously, there was a major problem happening.

Now the same massive recall is happening over air bag malfunctions, also with Toyota. Did the NHTSA wait too long to respond to those complaints, too? There could be issues of the agency being underfunded and understaffed. That is what the audit hopes to reveal.

Change in the Law

The NHTSA is also the first stop for driver safety law changes. When legislators are driving to change the rules of the road, they turn to the NHTSA for input. Sometimes those laws can have a serious impact, as with the issue of wearing a seat belt. Other laws – like the wearing of motorcycle helmets – might not be changing the death rates.

Consider the following:

Motorcycle Safety IG FINALmini.pdf

Based on this data, a compelling argument can be made that lenient laws result in a decrease in motorcycle deaths. Those are the same kinds of arguments that are made whenever there is a change in the speed limits. Back in 1974, the national speed limit on highways was set at 55 mph, but that had more to do with saving gas than saving lives. Today, there are many states that have raised that speed limit and reported a decrease in accidents.

One thing is for sure: DOT’s review has prompted the NHTSA administrator to formulate recommendations for its agency that will be put into effect later this year. That’s the power of the audit.

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