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From Products Liability Law Daily, January 13, 2014

NHTSA focused on technology to advance its safety mission in 2013

By Joe Bichl

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) addressed a variety of motor vehicle safety issues—including crash avoidance mitigation technologies, distracted driving, early warning reporting, and occupant impact protection—through regulatory and administrative action. The agency also proposed a way to fast-track regulations.

Advanced technologies. The agency looked to technology in 2013 to further its safety mission. “This year, we worked to advance the adoption of technologies that will deliver enormous lifesaving potential while also ensuring that new vehicle features don’t undermine safety,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said in a Department of Transportation release.

Rearview cameras. NHTSA, focusing action this year on rearview camera technology, added rearview video systems to its list of recommended features under its New Car Assessment Program. The systems are intended to improve rearview visibility and help prevent backover accidents. However, the agency continues to labor over a much-delayed rear visibility safety standard. A rear visibility rule, mandated by the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act, was signed into law in 2008 by President George W. Bush and was to have been finalized in 2011. It is currently over two years overdue. In June of this year, former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood postponed the rule until 2015.

“Significant and Seamless” initiative. This initiative, according to Strickland, “seeks to put three lifesaving vehicle technologies on the road as soon as possible.” Issued in November 2013, it calls for the agency and the automotive industry to fast-track existing technology for the greatest technological advances, emphasizing three promising areas of technological development:

  • Seatbelt Interlocks—This technology could prevent a vehicle from being driven if the driver and passenger are not properly buckled.

  • Forward Collision Avoidance and Mitigation—This sensor-based, vehicle technology could detect a forward crash with another vehicle or pedestrian before it occurs, by alerting the driver to take corrective action to avoid the crash.

  • Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety—This technology could prevent a vehicle from being driven by a drunk driver.

To understand the potential of these technologies, Strickland lays it out simply: 11,189 people were killed in 2012 while riding without a seat belt; 10,322 people were killed in alcohol related crashes; and 90 percent of all crashes involve human error.

SaferCar app. In March, the agency made available an application for consumers with mobile devices. The app allows users to search the agency’s 5-Star Safety Ratings System for vehicles by make and model, locate car seat installation help, file a vehicle safety complaint, and look up recall information.

“Whether you're in the market for a new car or child safety seat, or just trying to stay current on recalls, we think that's a pretty powerful set of tools to have at your fingertips,” Strickland had said at its unveiling.

Regulatory actions and proposals. The agency was off its stride in 2013 in completing regulatory work, but adopted certain significant rules concerning seat belts and early warning reporting and proposed to expedite the rulemaking process.

Buses equipped with seat belts. In November, the agency promulgated a rule directing that all new motorcoaches and other large buses be equipped with lap and shoulder seat belts for each passenger and driver seat. On average, 21 motorcoach and large bus occupants are killed and 7,934 are injured annually in motor vehicle crashes, according to NHTSA data. Requiring seat belts could reduce fatalities by up to 44 percent and reduce the number of moderate to severe injuries by up to 45 percent. In announcing the rule, Strickland said, “While travel on motorcoaches is overall a safe form of transportation, when accidents do occur, there is the potential for a greater number of deaths and serious injuries due to the number of occupants and high speeds at which the vehicles are traveling. Adding seat belts to motorcoaches increases safety for all passengers and drivers, especially in the event of a rollover crash.”

Early warning reporting. NTHSA updated the decade-old early warning reporting (EWR) rule that was created in the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act era, circa 2000. Among other things, the amended rule added a new component category of stability control systems for light vehicles, buses, emergency vehicles, and medium-heavy vehicle component manufacturers. In addition, for light vehicle manufacturers, the agency added the categories of forward collision avoidance, lane departure prevention, and back-over prevention. The new rule also requires motor vehicle manufacturers to provide consumers with online access to motor vehicle recall information searchable by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) so consumers can instantly determine whether a specific vehicle is subject to a recall and whether the recall has been remedied, as identified by their unique VIN.

Miscellaneous rulings. NHTSA also completed work on the definition of the term, “designated seating position”; issued a reminder that head restraints are regulated under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 202a and that aftermarket head restraints that are outfitted with audio and video components must comply with the standard when installed. The agency revised the list of vehicles not originally manufactured to conform to federal motor vehicle safety standards that are eligible for importation; eased stopping distance requirements of the air brake safety standard (78 FR 9623); and increased tire pressure PSI for the tire standard’s “physical dimensions test” (78 FR 3843).

Fast-tracking regulations. In an effort to fast track the adoption of rules, bypassing the public comment process, the agency proposed to give itself “direct final rulemaking” authority, allowing itself to declare a regulatory proposal to be non-controversial and rush it into effect.

“NHTSA is proposing to use the direct final rulemaking process when the action to be taken is not anticipated to generate adverse comment, and therefore, providing notice and opportunity for comment would not be necessary,” according to the proposal. “NHTSA believes this procedural option would expedite the issuance of, and thereby save time and agency resources on, rules that are not controversial.”

In addition, the agency proposed new specifications for 3-year-old side impact test dummies; eliminating tire-type restrictions on light trailers (78 FR 15920); and minimum sound requirements for hybrid and electric vehicles in an effort to protect blind pedestrians (78 FR 2868).

Agency guidance initiatives. The agency also addressed distracted driving, older drivers, and automated vehicle policy this year by issuing the following guidelines:

Driver Distraction: NHTSA issued voluntary guidelines for electronic devices installed in vehicles at the time they are manufactured that require drivers to take their hands off the wheel or eyes of the road to use them. The guidelines include recommendations to limit the time a driver must take his eyes off the road to perform any task to two seconds at a time and twelve seconds total. The guidelines also recommend disabling several operations unless the vehicle is stopped and in park, such as texting and video communications.

Older driver guidelines. The agency published “Older Driver Highway Safety Program Guidelines,” which states can implement “to keep older people safely mobile.” The guidelines are based on best practices around the country and include measures that can be implemented to ensure the safety of older drivers, including at-risk drivers, the agency said. The guidelines encourage state highway safety offices to work closely with driver license officials, state departments of transportation, medical providers, and aging services providers.

Automated vehicle policy. As technology progresses, the notion of automated vehicles is no longer a science-fiction fantasy. This year NHTSA announced new policy guidance regarding automated vehicles and the safety concerns associated with them. Fully automated vehicles, sometimes referred to as “self-driving” or “autonomous” vehicles, are those that essentially operate themselves without the assistance of the driver steering, accelerating, or stopping the vehicle. The agency also suggested ways that individual states involved in such emerging vehicle technology could test, license, and regulate the vehicles.

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