WASHINGTON – After their 16-year-old daughter died in a car crash, David and Wendy Mills wondered whether she would be alive if federal rules on rear seat belt warnings had been issued on time.
Four years later, with no rule and traffic fatalities spiking, they’re still at a loss over the inaction.
The teenager was riding in the back seat of a car to a Halloween party in 2017 just a mile from her house in Spring, Texas, when she unfastened her seat belt to slide next to her friend and take a selfie. Moments later, the driver veered off the road and the car flipped, ejecting her.
Kailee died instantly. Her three friends who remained buckled walked away with minor scrapes.
A 2012 law had directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation, to implement safety rules requiring car manufacturers to install a warning to drivers if an unbuckled passenger is sitting in a rear seat. The agency had three years to act.
But the regulation wasn’t done when Kailee climbed into her friend’s car, though it’s been estimated it could save hundreds of lives each year. It’s one of more than a dozen car safety rules now years overdue, according to an analysis by the Associated Press.
The ever-growing docket has become one of the biggest tests for the federal agency since its founding in 1970, when public pressure led by safety activist Ralph Nader spurred NHTSA’s mission to “save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes.”
Advocates worry the agency has lost focus and risks getting bogged down under President Joe Biden, at a time of increasing road accidents and reckless driving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need a call to action,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. He called the pandemic surge in accidents a “car crash epidemic.”
The rules backlog would only increase with the sweeping technological requirements included in a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill pending in Congress, from new breathalyzer devices that would disable a car if a driver is drunk to stiffer standards for reporting safety recalls.
Currently, the 600-employee federal agency lacks a permanent leader. Its acting administrator is Steven Cliff, a former deputy executive officer at the California Air Resources Board, which regulates auto emissions, a key component of Biden’s climate agenda.
“Government should not take this long to act on safety,” said David Mills, who started a Houston-area foundation in Kailee’s honor aimed at promoting seat belt safety. The foundation keeps a list, known as “Kailee’s Angels,” of some of the teenagers around the country who died in car crashes after failing to buckle up.
“It’s devastating to families,” he said.
The rear seat belt reminder requirement is now scheduled to start moving through the cumbersome regulatory process in January, but a final rule could be years away. The agency in the past has repeatedly blown past deadlines, including those promised in federal court.
The AP review of NHTSA’s rule-making activities under the last three presidents found at least 13 auto safety rules that are years overdue based on deadlines set in laws passed by Congress.
In most cases, those rules are opposed by powerful industries as expensive, outdated or restrictive. Other pending rules have been slowed by the bureaucracy or taken a back seat to other priorities under Democratic presidents. For example, a 2011 initiative that large commercial vehicles be equipped with devices to limit their speed was recently put on indefinite hold by Biden.
President Donald Trump sidetracked at least four major road safety proposals, including medical evaluations of commercial truck drivers for sleep apnea.
Pending rules include side-impact standards for child car seats, originally due in 2014. Attorneys general of 17 states and the District of Columbia wrote to the Biden administration in July, urging immediate action. Other pending rules would require car manufacturers to maintain records of safety defects for at least 10 years, as required by Congress and originally due in 2017, and anti-ejection protection measures for larger buses, due in 2014.
Standards for “smart” car headlights, begun in 2018, are incomplete despite car industry support. Smart headlights would adjust a high intensity light to oncoming traffic, so drivers don’t have to toggle between high and low beams.
NHTSA declined to make Cliff available for comment. The agency instead released a list of steps it has taken to address auto safety, including recently announced proposed fuel economy standards that Biden has promoted to confront climate change.
The agency points in part to plans to require or set standards for automatic emergency braking systems on new passenger vehicles and heavy trucks, a reversal from the Trump administration, and to move forward on some of the delayed regulations, though it did not offer firm guarantees on timing.
NHTSA has pledged to require what it said are rigorous testing standards for autonomous vehicles and set up a national database to document automated-vehicle crashes. It has prodded electric vehicle maker Tesla to recall dark touch screens and is investigating the company’s Autopilot partially automated driving system’s failure to stop for parked emergency vehicles.
In recent public remarks, Cliff said the agency is committed to address rising traffic fatalities and he stressed a “transformational and collaborative approach to safety.”
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