The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, often pronounced "nit-suh") is an agency of the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, part of the Department of Transportation. It describes its mission as “Save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes.”
As part of its activities, NHTSA is charged with writing and enforcing safety, theft-resistance, and fuel economy standards for motor vehicles, the latter under the rubric of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) system. NHTSA also licenses vehicle manufacturers and importers, allows or blocks the import of vehicles and safety-regulated vehicle parts, administers the VIN system, develops the anthropomorphic dummies used in safety testing, as well as the test protocols themselves, and provides vehicle insurance cost information. The agency has asserted preemptive regulatory authority over Greenhouse gas emissions, but this has been disputed by such state regulatory agencies as the California Air Resources Board.
Another of NHTSA’s major activities is the creation and maintenance of the data files maintained by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis. In particular, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, has become a resource for traffic safety research not only in the US, but throughout the world. Research contributions using FARS by researchers from many countries appear in many non-US technical publications, and provide a significant database and knowledge bank on the subject. Even with this database, conclusive analysis of crash causes often remains difficult and controversial, with experts debating the veracity and statistical validity of results.
In 1940, the United States implemented automobile design legislation, concerning sealed beam headlamps, which had recently been invented and were an important safety advance at that time. This regulation, virtually unchanged for the next 40 years, set a pattern of using auto safety design legislation to freeze innovation at a point in time.
In 1958, the UN established the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations, which began to promulgate what would eventually become UN's Economic Commission for Europe or ECE Regulations on vehicle design, construction, and safety performance. The United States declined to join the forum or adopt its (or any other) vehicle safety regulations at that time. However, vehicles meeting the ECE safety standards were legal to import into the United States.
In 1965 and 1966, public pressure grew in the US to increase the safety of cars, culminating with the publishing of Unsafe at Any Speed, by Ralph Nader, an activist lawyer, and the National Academy of Sciences' "Accidental Death and Disability—The Neglected Disease of Modern Society".
In 1966, Congress held a series of highly publicized hearings regarding highway safety, passed legislation to make installation of seat belts mandatory, and enacted Public Law 89-563, Public Law 89-564, and Public Law 89-670 which created the U.S. Department of Transportation on October 15, 1966). This legislation created several predecessor agencies which would eventually become the NHTSA, including the National Traffic Safety Agency, the National Highway Safety Agency, and the National Highway Safety Bureau. Once the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards came into effect, vehicles meeting the ECE safety standards but not the U.S. standards were no longer legal to import into the United States.
The NHTSA was officially established in 1970 by the Highway Safety Act of 1970. In 1972, the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act expanded NHTSA's scope to include consumer information programs.
Since this era, automobiles have become far better in protecting their occupants in vehicle impacts. The number of deaths on American highways hover around 40,000 annually, a lower death rate per mile travelled than in the 1960s.
In the US, NHTSA has introduced a proposal to mandate Electronic Stability Control on all passenger vehicles by the 2012 model year. This technology was first brought to public attention in 1997, with the Swedish moose test.
Consumers today have a far greater amount of auto safety information available, due to the efforts of NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
In the mid 1960s when the framework was established for US vehicle safety regulations, the US auto market was an oligopoly, with just three companies (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) controlling 85% of the market. At that time, the USA had safer traffic than any country in the world, whether measured by the number of traffic deaths per thousand vehicles, or the number of traffic deaths per 100 million miles.
The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards are contained in the United States Code of Federal Regulations, Title 49, Part 571. This is commonly referred to as 49CFR571, with any particular FMVSS appended after a period, as for example 49CFR571.301—the location of FMVSS 301. Additional Federal vehicle standards are contained elsewhere in the CFR. For instance, 49CFR564 contains the specifications and requirements for the various types of replaceable headlamp "light source" (bulb). FMVSS 209 was the first standard to become effective on March 1, 1967.
Although a system of uniform auto safety performance and equipment regulations had been in place in Europe since 1958, the US did not seek to adopt or harmonize with these ECE regulations, which have since been adopted by virtually all industrialized countries outside North America. Compared to the ECE regulations, US regulations are fundamentally different in philosophy, content, emphasis, and enforcement protocol. Vehicles conforming to the internationalized (originally European) ECE regulations are allowed or required throughout the entire rest of the world, but such vehicles are illegal in the US because they don't conform to the US regulations.
Despite the evolution of the North American auto market to include most of the world's major automakers, and the ongoing proliferation of US safety regulations, the previously-existing market oligopoly still exerts strong influence: US vehicle equipment and construction regulations are based almost entirely on SAE standards, which were written almost entirely by US automakers.
In a 2004 book, by former General Motors safety researcher Leonard Evans, government-data (FARS for US) showed other countries achieving safety performance improvements over time greater than those achieved by the US:
|1979 Fatalities||2002 Fatalities||Percent Change|
Research on the trends in use of heavy vehicles indicate that a significant difference between the U.S. and other countries is the relatively high prevalence of pickup trucks and SUVs in the U.S. A 2003 study by the U.S. Transportation Research Board found that SUVs and pickup trucks are significantly less safe than passenger cars, that imported-brand vehicles tend to be safer than American-brand vehicles, and that the size and weight of a vehicle has a significantly smaller effect on safety than the quality of the vehicle's engineering. Comparisons of past data with the present in the U.S. can result in distortions, since the level of large commercial truck traffic has substantially increased from the 1960s while highway capacity has not kept pace with the increase in large commercial truck traffic on U.S. highways. However, other factors exert significant influence; Canada has lower roadway death and injury rates despite a vehicle mix comparable to that of the US. Nevertheless, the widespread use of truck-based vehicles as passenger carriers is correlated with roadway deaths and injuries not only directly by dint of vehicular safety performance per se, but also indirectly through the relatively low fuel costs that facilitate the use of such vehicles in North America. Motor vehicle fatalities decline as gasoline prices increase. NHTSA has issued few regulations in the past 25 years. Most of the reduction in vehicle fatality rates during the last third of the 20th Century were gained from the initial NHTSA safety standards during 1968–1984 and subsequent voluntary changes in vehicle crashworthiness by vehicle manufacturers
The United States blocks the importation of vehicles built to international ECE Regulations rather than the U.S. safety regulations. Because of the unavailability in America of certain vehicle models, a grey market arose in the late 1970s. This provided an alternate, legal method to acquire vehicles only sold overseas. The success of the grey market, however, ate into the business of Mercedes-Benz of North America Inc., which launched a successful congressional lobbying effort to eliminate this alternative for consumers in 1988, despite the lack of any evidence suggesting grey-market vehicles were less safe than those built to comply with U.S. regulations. As a result, it is no longer possible to import foreign vehicles into the United States as a personal import, with few exceptions—primarily Canadian cars with safety regulations substantially similar to the United States, and vehicles imported temporarily for display or research purposes. In practice the gray market involved a few thousand luxury cars annually,before its virtual elimination in 1988.
In 1998, NHTSA exempted vehicles older than 25 years from the rules it administers, since these are presumed to be collector vehicles. However, the ban on newer vehicles considered safe in countries with lower vehicle-related death rates has led some to claim that the main effect of NHTSA's regulatory activity is to protect the U.S. market for a modified oligopoly consisting of the three U.S.-based automakers and the American operations of foreign-brand producers. It has been suggested that the impetus for NHTSA's seeming preoccupation with market control rather than vehicular safety performance is a result of overt market protections such as tariffs and local-content laws having become politically unpopular due to the increasing popularity of free trade. This has driven U.S. industry to adopt less visible forms of trade restrictions in the form of technical regulations different but demonstrably not superior to those outside the United States.
An example of the market-control effects of NHTSA's regulatory protocol is found in the agency's 1974 banning of the Citroën SM automobile, which contemporary journalists noted was one of the safest vehicles available at the time. NHTSA disapproved the SM due to its high-performance, low-glare, steerable headlamps which were not of the outmoded sealed beam design mandatory in the U.S., and its height adjustable suspension, which made compliance with the 1973 bumper requirements impossible; ironically the bumper regulation was intended to control the costs resulting from low speed collisions, not enhance occupant safety.
Some NHTSA standards led to unintended consequences, especially in the early days of NHTSA. The majority Americans in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s did not wear seat belts, which are estimated to reduce the risk of death in a crash by about 45%. NHTSA attempted to promote belt use by a buzzer-light system that operated continuously if belts were not extended from their stowed positions. When that did not significantly increase use, NHTSA's response was an authoritarian one: seat belt/ignition interlock devices allowed as an alternative to airbags in all new 1974 vehicles, which prevented the car starting unless all front-seat occupants were belted. The interlock provoked such an uproar that Congress forced NHTSA to repeal the standard. Airbags were beginning to be discussed as replacements for seat belts—not as supplementary restraints—and while General Motors sold a small number of vehicles with dual front airbags and no front seat belts between 1974 and 1977, the controversial mandate for airbags in all US-sold vehicles did not take force until the early 1990s.
There are nominally strict cost-benefit ratio requirements for every safety device or system NHTSA mandates for installation on vehicles. That is, the device or system must save more money than it costs, or must cost no more than a specified amount of money per life saved, or it may not legally be mandated. Such requirements are subject to manipulation of estimated costs and estimated benefits to justify or reject almost any standard: FMVSS #208 effectively mandates the installation of frontal Airbags in all new vehicles in the US, for it is written such that no other technology can meet the stipulated requirements. Even using conservative cost figures and optimistic benefit figures, airbags' cost-benefit ratio is quite extreme, and may fall afoul of the cost-benefit requirements for mandatory safety devices. However, when HID headlamps appeared on the market, NHTSA made no move to require automatic beam levelling or lens cleaning equipment, citing lack of cost-effectiveness. Both of these systems are glare-control measures required with these powerful headlamps under ECE Regulations followed outside North America.
The world's first halogen headlamp bulbs, high-performance designs known as H1 and H3, were introduced in Europe in 1962 and 1964, respectively, and quickly became standard the world over, but they were not permitted in the United States until 1997. Likewise, the first two-filament high/low beam halogen headlamp bulb, another high-performance design called H4, was introduced in Europe in 1971 and immediately became the world standard, but was not legalized in the U.S. until 1992. Other lighting-related lags attributed to cost-effectiveness regulations selectively obeyed by NHTSA are evident in American regulations; for example, virtually every country in the world has since at least the early 1970s required rear turn signals to emit amber light so they can immediately be discerned from adjacent red brake lamps. U.S. regulations still permit rear turn signals to emit red light, citing the same cost-effectiveness regulations.
NHTSA also administers the controversial Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), which is intended to incentivize the production of fuel-efficient vehicles by dint of fuel economy requirements measured against the sales-weighted average of each manufacturer's range of vehicles. The Wall Street Journal and others argue this program forces people to buy smaller, lighter, less-safe vehicles. CAFE may be a driving factor behind the explosion in demand for SUVs, which are considered "light trucks" for CAFE purposes and therefore are not required to meet the stricter standards for vehicles classified as "cars." Many governments outside North America regulate fuel economy by heavily taxing motor fuel and/or by including a vehicle's engine size or fuel economy in calculating vehicle registration taxes. It is argued that such regulations are not politically feasible, and that doing so would hurt the struggling U.S. auto industry. Another putative problem with CAFE is that fuel economy is negatively correlated to vehicle weight—lighter vehicles giving better fuel economy—while vehicle weight is positively correlated to safety—larger and heavier vehicles better protect their occupants. Thus, NHTSA must accomplish two potentially contradictory regulatory goals at the same time. However, Transportation Research Board studies show safety disparities may exist among vehicles of differing price, country of origin, and quality not just among vehicles of different size and weight alone. Some other researchers dispute the incompatibility of reduction in vehicle weight and increased fuel economy.
Automakers faced an inherent conflict between NHTSA's stringent headlight legislation, which froze U.S. headlight technology in 1940, and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, which effectively mandated that automakers develop ways to improve the ability of the car to cleave the air. As a result, in the early 1980s, automakers lobbied for a modification of the mandate for fixed shape sealed-beam headlamps.
For the 1984 model year, Ford introduced the Lincoln Mark VII, the first car since 1939 to be sold in the US market with architectural headlamps as part of its aerodynamic design. These composite headlamps, when new to the U.S. market, were commonly but improperly referred to as "Euro" headlamps, since aerodynamic headlamps were already common in Europe. Though conceptually similar to European headlamps with nonstandardized shape and replaceable-bulb construction, these headlamps conform to the SAE headlamp design standards contained in U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, and not to the international safety standards used worldwide outside North America.
Consistent with allowing automobile designers appropriate levels of freedom to do their work, the minimum allowed performance and materials durability requirements of this new headlamp system were actually lower than those of the old sealed beam system.
In 1979, NHTSA created the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) in response to Title II of the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972, to encourage manufacturers to build safer vehicles and consumers to buy them. Since that time, the agency has improved the program by adding rating programs, facilitating access to test results, and revising the format of the information to make it easier for consumers to understand.  NHTSA asserts the program has influenced manufacturers to build vehicles that consistently achieve high ratings.
The agency established a frontal impact test protocol based on Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 (“Occupant Crash Protection”), except that the frontal 4 NCAP test is conducted at 56 km/h (35 mph), rather than 48 km/h (30 mph) as required by FMVSS No. 208.
More recently, in an effort to improve the dissemination of NCAP ratings and as a result of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA–LU) the agency has issued a Final Rule requiring manufacturers to place NCAP star ratings on the Monroney sticker (automobile price sticker). The rule has a September 1, 2007 compliance date.
The agency has an annual budget of US $815 Million (2007). The agency classifies most of its spending under the driver safety heading, with a minority spent on vehicle safety, and a smaller amount on environmental matters of which it is in charge, i.e., vehicular fuel economy.
On April 9, 2009 President Obama nominated Chuck Hurly, Chief Executive Officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to be the next NHTSA Administrator. In addition to drunk driving, his areas of expertise include air bag, seat belt, teen driving, and child safety.