Trapped Inside the Safety Belt

How political pressures, media hype, and special-interest lobbying drive auto regulators.


Judging by the number of individuals affected per dollar spent, the most intrusive federal agency is probably the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. With a budget of only $110 million and a staff of only 633 people, NHTSA nevertheless has a tremendous impact because it regulates something that most Americans have in common: their cars. From bumper and headlight standards to fuel economy, NHTSA regulates virtually every feature of the modern automobile. Even the dreaded IRS is less intrusive; taxes are withheld weekly at most, but many people use their cars daily.

NHTSA has one overriding mission: to reduce highway fatalities. According to NHTSA, 45,500 people died on U.S. roads in 1989, which is 2.2 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled—the lowest rate on record, even though Americans traveled a record 2.09 trillion miles. But since some people will inevitably die in automobile accidents, NHTSA's mission requires it to pursue additional regulation continually, despite downward trends in vehicle fatalities.

The temptation is to bash NHTSA for overregulation of the automobile industry. To be sure, NHTSA has initiated some regulatory actions, but to simply blame anonymous bureaucrats would be unfair, especially since NHTSA's staff is known for its high degree of professionalism and objectivity. The choices NHTSA makes in issuing regulations frequently are driven by an "iron triangle" of the sort described by Ronald Reagan: "parts of Congress, the media, and special interest groups," the last primarily including a network of safety groups and organizations funded by the insurance industry and trial lawyers. Safety groups publicize alleged defects and what they consider insufficient regulatory standards—frequently stretching accident statistics beyond good science in the process—creating, through sympathetic news media and members of Congress, immense political pressure for regulation. Outside the automotive enthusiast press, little attention is paid to the incestuous relationship between automotive regulation and the safety lobby.

Where NHTSA is most subject to the whipsaw of safety activists and the media is in its defect investigations. The agency investigates all claims of defects that could cause crashes, injuries, or fatalities. Sometimes the absence of any defect is obvious, but more often an investigation takes at least several months. Once someone lodges a formal complaint alleging a safety defect, NHTSA must investigate. Safety groups have a tremendous political advantage over NHTSA. When the agency carries out a full investigation, officials can only acknowledge that an investigation is under way; to characterize it could be seen as prejudicial. In the meantime, safety groups can score public relations points, call attention to themselves, and foment consumer panic.

No case better illustrates this process than the alleged "sudden acceleration" in 1984–86 Audi 5000s with automatic transmissions. In short, some people claimed that Audis would suddenly leap forward from an idle, stationary position and that drivers were unable to stop the cars by braking. Several fatalities, numerous injuries, and property damage were allegedly linked to this phenomenon. Years before, several other auto makers, including General Motors, had been investigated for the same problem, but Audi drew the most attention and suffered the most damage.

The first allegations against Audi came in a March 19, 1986, press conference held by New York Attorney General Robert Abrams. Abrams appeared before the cameras with representatives of the Center for Auto Safety and the newly organized Audi Victims Network. The press conference made the evening news and many major daily newspapers. Shortly thereafter NHTSA opened a formal investigation. The most severe blow to Audi came that November, when "60 Minutes" aired a segment that included an interview with a woman who said she had run over her son and killed him in a sudden acceleration accident.

On December 23, NHTSA, without yet having found a cause for sudden acceleration, ordered Audi of America to conduct a recall of 1984–86 Audi 5000s. The company began the recall on January 15, 1987, installing an automatic shift lock to prevent drivers from shifting the automatic transmission from park to either reverse or drive without engaging the brakes. It would be NHTSA's most successful recall ever, with approximately 95 percent of the cars recalled and serviced, against a normal rate of 60 percent to 65 percent.

"NHTSA uncharacteristically kept the investigation open while they did a secondary audit of the completion rate and the effectiveness of the device," says Joe Bennett, spokesman for Audi of America. "What NHTSA had always done…was as soon as a car company announced a recall, they closed the investigation. Ours stayed open for more than a year afterward, and…our market went to hell.

"If they had closed that investigation back in January 1987 when we started the recall, we could have had a flying head start on rebuilding, and it would have shut off one of the major avenues of continuing publicity by our opponents. As long as that investigation was open, they could talk about it…with all kinds of innuendo."

Audi's U.S. sales fell from 74,000 cars in Model Year 1984, the last full year before the story broke, to just 23,000 cars in MY 1989. Forbes estimates that Audi lost $1 billion on the sudden acceleration scare, including lost sales and the costs of introducing renamed replacement models ahead of normal schedule and of rebuilding Audi's once impeccable reputation.

NHTSA finally closed its investigation in June 1989, more than three years after the first allegation of a defect and three months after issuing a comprehensive report on sudden acceleration. NHTSA's conclusion: "[Pedal] misapplications were the likely cause of these incidents." In other words, drivers stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal. The Canadian government, in concluding an earlier investigation, was more blunt; it said "driver error" was the culprit. There was no defect.

"The tearful lady on '60 Minutes' who told about the tragic accident killing her son neglected to say, or if she did it certainly didn't get on the air, that her foot slipped off the brake and onto the gas," Bennett says. "This is what she told the police, and this is what she told the hospital." She lost her lawsuit against Audi. The more than $5 billion in similar lawsuits once pending against the company all have been dismissed.

Even though the bad publicity and NHTSA's abnormally long investigation nearly destroyed Audi's U.S. business, Bennett expresses no bitterness toward the agency. "I think that we have to understand that [NHTSA] is a political organization, it has a political master, and it has to respond politically," he says. "I am not certain that I would do anything different if I were in their shoes. So I don't know that I could fault them, but I do know that the cost to Audi was absolutely tremendous."

Diane Steed, who as NHTSA's administrator during the Reagan years oversaw the Audi investigation, readily acknowledges that there were political considerations in the case. "Because the thing had been so politicized by the safety groups, we hired a team of outside experts to investigate the problem," she says. "Theirs was the definitive study, and it confirmed exactly what the agency had found. There was no mechanical defect." This outside investigation, however, only delayed an official conclusion and prolonged the open season on Audi.

Audi is not unique in having suffered from early safety group propaganda combined with a slow agency response. NHTSA investigated Suzuki in the late 1980s for rollovers of its four-wheel-drive Samurai. As with the Audi 5000, the safety lobby had set the Samurai investigation in motion. Consumer Reports published an article on the alleged design defect, and television networks dutifully picked up on the story, with some even broadcasting videotapes of "rollovers" provided by safety groups. No defects ever were found. NHTSA found that many of the rollover accidents had three common elements: young drivers, vehicles driven for less than six months, and the presence of alcohol. Suzuki, like Audi, was a victim of media hysteria fomented by the safety lobby. By the time NHTSA completed its formal investigation, the damage was done. Suzuki redesigned the Samurai to rescue the nameplate.

These cases were foreshadowed by the defect investigation that helped launch NHTSA itself. In Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader charged that the Chevrolet Corvair's suspension was defective in design and that the car was inherently unsafe. Nader's book killed the Corvair. But more important, it established Nader as an automotive safety "expert" and gave the auto-safety movement political clout.

Not only were Ralph Nader and his compadres instrumental in NHTSA's founding in 1966 (it was then called the National Traffic Safety Agency, part of the Commerce Department), many of NHTSA's current programs and a large part of its current regulatory agenda can be traced to NHTSA's iron triangle. According to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, fuel-economy standards, passive-restraint requirements, NHTSA's crash-testing program, and minimum standards for crash survivability and tire treadwear all resulted from safety lobby efforts.

Founded in 1970 by Nader, the Center for Auto Safety today remains one of the most influential players in the auto-safety debate. Current NHTSA Administrator Jerry Ralph Curry says of the center and its allies: "They are major players, and you cannot ignore them, [or else] they will cause you all sorts of grief."

Government investigators never found a design defect in the Corvair, but few people know of this blot on Nader's record. And the center's image as an independent consumer crusader also is not quite accurate. The center has received substantial funding from the insurance industry and trial lawyers.

Among the other leading agenda setters for NHTSA are the Institute for Injury Reduction, funded by trial lawyers; the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a "research" organization that acts as a government and public-affairs shop for the insurance industry; Public Citizen, another Nader-network group now under the leadership of Carter-era NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook; and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, another insurance industry front. These groups are frequently cited in the national media as unbiased "experts" on highway safety.

Countering them on the free-market side are only two groups, both small and both, when compared to the insurance/Nader network, perhaps hopelessly outgunned: the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has been most active on fuel-economy regulation, and the American Motorists Association (formerly Citizens for Rational Traffic Laws), a 15,000-member grassroots organization.

In between are several organizations, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Traffic Safety Now, that focus on alcohol and other driver-related issues. These groups have wide-ranging agendas, primarily focusing on law-enforcement strategies and public information campaigns.

The automotive industry does not take an active role in the safety debate. In part, this is due to corporate timidity. Liability concerns also are an important factor in Detroit's political silence; the strongest arguments against some forms of regulation involve the assertion that the regulation in question would hurt safety. The Big Three (and at a less visible level, foreign auto makers) spring to action only in often vain attempts to halt minor changes in existing regulations or to thwart enactment of the most damaging new ones.

Consequently, safety groups dominate the regulatory debate, with help from the media. This is not to say that NHTSA necessarily takes or will take action in response to safety-group action requests, but the safety lobby nonetheless has a great deal of influence over how NHTSA allots staff time and over what regulatory initiatives it takes.

In part this is the unavoidable result of NHTSA's statutory role as vehicle-safety enforcer. Simply by lodging complaints, the safety lobby can divert large amounts of NHTSA staff time while generating publicity for safety groups and against manufacturers, as the Audi investigation demonstrated.

"Quite a bit of staff time was wasted responding to these people," says Ron DeFore, NHTSA's director of public affairs under Steed. "Anytime Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen, the Center for Auto Safety, or other self-proclaimed consumer advocates came out with some inaccurate report, which was quite often, we spent a great deal of time trying to correct those disinformation campaigns."

Complaints from groups like the Center for Auto Safety also consumed a considerable amount of enforcement staff time, Steed says. "It's not so much that they set the agenda, in the enforcement sense, because most of the time the agency already has received calls from the public or otherwise picked up the problem," she says. "But you have to handle their detailed requests for information, and therefore they create a lot of paperwork that has nothing to do with safety."

The center's penchant for complaint filing has so irritated NHTSA's engineering staff that last year 50 career employees of the Office of Defects Investigations sent an open letter to the center, accusing it of "seriously undermining" investigations by whipping up public hysteria. The letter also charged that the center obtains safety-related complaint data from NHTSA and sells the information to attorneys. The center's Ditlow admits selling this information, but contends the center loses money doing it. "I don't think [the employees] were in touch with reality on that complaint," Ditlow says.

Safety organizations also have influenced more routine agency work by lobbying for mandatory agency reports to Congress, which provide predictable press events. When rural interstate speed limits were raised, the safety lobby extracted a congressional mandate for annual reports on the effects of the 65-mph speed limit. It is far too soon to tell for sure if the change in rural interstate speed limits has had any effect at all on safety, but this has not stopped the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and others from propagandizing otherwise. The institute claims the 65-mph limit was responsible for as many as 700 additional deaths on rural interstate highways during 1987–88. At a July 1989 congressional hearing, NHTSA Acting Administrator Jeffrey Miller offered only this meek response: "We have no reason to take issue with IIHS's conclusion, but we believe it is still premature to arrive at any definitive conclusion concerning the safety effects."

While filing defect complaints and lobbying for new vehicle safety standards at least have a logical connection to the safety lobby's concerns, its efforts have sometimes forced NHTSA to act in ways that hurt safety.

Passive restraints, an icon to the safety lobby, are one example. As of the 1990 model year, all new cars sold in the United States must come equipped with either airbags or automatic safety belts. This requirement has actually made Ferrari's new supercar, the F40, less safe. Its stiff suspension precluded airbags, so Ferrari had to use conventional automatic shoulder harnesses and manual lapbelts. European F40s, however, come with five-point racing-style harnesses.

"Everybody recognizes that the Ferrari [five-point] seatbelt is a lot safer," Bob Helmuth, director of NHTSA's Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance, told Autoweek, "but it requires hooking them up. It's an active system, not a passive one."

The bad news about passive restraints gets worse. "Passive belts often suffer from anchor and buckle locations designed first for automatic operation and second for optimal restraint," Car and Driver's Csaba Csere, an automotive engineer, wrote in the magazine's March 1990 issue. Not only are passive lapbelt buckles frequently located several inches forward of those in active systems, Csere says, "the belt anchor is typically several inches forward of the conventional active belt location. For some drivers in their normal driving positions, this leaves the belt hanging in the air, some inches forward of the driver's shoulder." Those extra inches of play can spell additional and serious injury to occupants in a collision.

The corporate average fuel-economy standard provides another example of conflicting agency missions. Several studies, including ones by NHTSA and, earlier, Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution and John Graham of the Harvard School of Public Health, have documented the negative safety impact of higher fuel-economy standards. Even Joan Claybrook, in her parting report as administrator in 1981, warned that "the risk of death and serious injury will increase markedly" as a result of "the general downsizing of all passenger cars and light trucks."

Until recently, NHTSA refused even to acknowledge that there could be a safety tradeoff for a higher fuel-economy standard, primarily because NHTSA did not look beyond year-to-year effects of CAFE in the 1980s.

"In any given year-to-year look, I really don't think that safety was compromised," says Steed. "There wasn't much effect on safety, and there wasn't much effect on fuel economy." Dramatically higher CAFE levels, such as those now under consideration, she adds, definitely would have an adverse safety impact.

CAFE did not really affect manufacturers until the end of the Reagan administration, which exercised its option to lower the standard from the statutory 27.5 miles per gallon to 26 mpg for Model Years 1986–88, but raised it to 26.5 mpg for MY 1989. Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner boosted it to 27.5 mpg for MY 1990, and a Senate committee, backed by the Center for Auto Safety, recently approved a bill that eventually would raise each manufacturer's CAFE requirement by a draconian 40 percent. While NHTSA Administrator Curry says he would oppose a "quantum jump" in CAFE on safety and technical grounds, he says, "I think CAFE will continue to go up incrementally."

Higher fuel-economy standards are not all that is in store under the new NHTSA regime. Under Steed, the agency moved away from vehicle regulation and focused its efforts on altering unsafe driver behavior, with tangible results on seatbelt use and drunk driving. The Bush administration is in a more proregulation mood.

"We put out more regulations in the last 12 months than have been put out [in any year] in the history of the agency, with the exception of 1979 under Joan Claybrook," Curry says. "We came very close to that. We will beat her record this year." Curry attributes this burst of regulatory activity to a "backlog of safety regulations" and the changing vehicle mix, especially the increasing use of minivans and light trucks by families.

An internal agency plan for 1990 through 1992 includes numerous new vehicle standards, many of which originated with safety groups, as well as several law-enforcement efforts that should be of great concern to those who care about individual rights.

In a move strongly supported by antidrunk-driving organizations, Curry will probably ask states to implement administrative (instant) license-suspension laws for suspected drunk drivers. Someone who is never found guilty of drunk driving could suffer the same penalties as someone who is convicted. Such an approach is particularly worrisome in rural areas, where losing driving privileges, and thus transportation to work, can mean losing one's job as well. Curry says he favors flexibility in punishing first offenders, but it is not clear how this could be reconciled with the inflexibility of administrative suspension.

Curry also seeks to achieve 70-percent seatbelt usage by 1992, up from just under 50 percent today. He advocates primary enforcement of seatbelt use laws, meaning motorists could be stopped and ticketed for seatbelt offenses only; most states with seatbelt laws only write tickets for failure to wear a seatbelt in conjunction with other offenses. Puerto Rico already has a primary-enforcement law, and Curry sees it as a national model.

As for vehicle standards, new side-impact regulations for light trucks and vans are in the works. The agency also will seek additional regulations for rollover standards, extension of passive-restraint requirements to light trucks and vans, and, possibly, a return of 5-mph bumper standards. A more stringent bumper standard would, as NHTSA reasoned when it eased it to 2.5 mph in 1982, add weight to most cars and thus impair efforts to achieve better fuel economy.

Many of these efforts are just one step ahead of safety groups and their friends in Congress. The word in Washington is that Curry has his sights on a Cabinet-level appointment, so he does not wish to anger anyone on Capitol Hill.

Only time will tell if the rumors about Curry's ambitions are true. But one thing is sure: Under the "kinder, gentler" Bush administration, NHTSA can be expected to be a lot less kind and gentle toward cars and drivers.

Thomas Harvey Holt is assistant editorial page editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.