Speaking with a reporter in 1977, William Haddon, the first administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, presented an unorthodox solution to the country’s vehicular-death problem: Don’t preach to drivers. At the time, not unlike today, public service announcements and police patrols blamed road fatalities on drivers’ mistakes.
“I think that’s too high a penalty for being human,” Haddon told the reporter. “We’ve all been miseducated that the way to solve this problem is to have more squads of police chasing Americans so that they wouldn’t drive 120 miles per hour rather than arranging cars so they can’t go that fast.”
Amid a massive rise in pedestrian fatalities in the past two decades, which accelerated in the past two years, part of a significant rise in all traffic fatalities, Haddon’s idea is more urgent than ever. His point was not that drivers never make mistakes or bad decisions in their car—ample evidence shows that drivers do so on a regular basis. But those mistakes do not have to be anyone’s death sentence. If regulators and automakers focused on how cars are designed rather than whether people make mistakes in them, the United States could limit the number of people—drivers, passengers, pedestrians, or cyclists—who die in vehicular crashes. Instead, the average passenger vehicle keeps growing in size and speed, and large vehicles, such as SUVs and light trucks, make up a greater share of vehicles on the road every year. That means mistakes on the road come with more serious consequences.
To err is human, but traffic deaths are not inevitable if regulators and automakers protect people from the worst consequences of their mistakes. Congress created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to do exactly that—partly in response to the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whose testimony 56 years ago this month demonstrated that American cars’ built-in dangers were well known to automakers. Under Haddon’s leadership, NHTSA created the first federal safety regulations for car manufacturers in 1967. Among other rules, the government required seat belts, which prevented passengers from being ejected in a crash; collapsible steering columns, which kept drivers from being impaled; and adhesive windshield bonding, which meant that, even if you weren’t wearing a seat belt in a crash, you were less likely to be killed by a sharp piece of glass. None of these regulations prevented errors; each addressed a dangerous condition inside the car to prevent drivers’ mistakes from becoming fatal.
Previously, automakers attributed car crashes to the proverbial “nut behind the wheel” and asserted that vehicle design had nothing to do with whether people survived crashes. When federal standards were first proposed in 1966, automakers fought back. Henry Ford II insisted that making his cars safer was “unreasonable, arbitrary, and technically unfeasible,” to such a degree that “we’ll have to close down.”
Instead, Ford remained in business. His company and others upgraded their vehicles. Even though people still drove poorly and crashed, traffic fatalities declined precipitously for decades. By 2012, the government calculated, safety mandates had prevented more than 600,000 deaths.
But progress began to reverse even before the coronavirus pandemic. Speeding on pandemic-empty streets only exacerbated the threats posed by heavier, more powerful SUVs. The crisis of traffic safety has been particularly acute for people on foot. While traffic fatalities rose 5 percent in the past decade, pedestrian deaths rose by nearly half. For people living in poverty, Black people, and Indigenous people, the likelihood of traffic death, inside and outside a car, is even more acute.
The European Union and Japan have not seen a concurrent crisis. In those jurisdictions, regulators protect people both inside and outside of a vehicle; vehicle-safety ratings take pedestrian risk into account. More than a decade ago, EU and Japanese regulators required that automakers redesign bumpers, hoods, and detection systems to reduce the likelihood of death on impact. Putting the onus of survivability on the automaker spurred the development of new technology, such as airbags that inflate outside the vehicle. Pedestrian fatalities fell by more than a third in a decade in Europe and have fallen by more than half since 2000 in Japan.
The explanation for the current rise in U.S. traffic fatalities is often chalked up to angry, tired, pandemic-wary drivers. This is just “the nut behind the wheel” theory adapted for the COVID-19 era. As Americans approach the beginning of year three of the pandemic, drivers likely are angry, tired, and wary. But so what? This explanation for higher traffic fatalities is not actionable. Changing human behavior is difficult. Why psychoanalyze drivers—or use law enforcement to scare them into driving more safely—when vehicle regulations can make their mistakes less deadly?
Haddon understood that having squads of police endlessly chasing Americans all over the roads would be less effective than designing them not to drive so fast. Current research proves this: A study of 12 years of police traffic stops in 33 states could find no correlation between policing drivers and reducing traffic deaths. However, despite Haddon’s best intentions, the U.S. has not limited the speed of cars or otherwise modified them much to protect pedestrians. In fact, since his time at NHTSA, the regulation of automakers has dramatically weakened.
In 2018, NHTSA recall investigations reached a historic low. A New York Times report found that, in 42 cases where regulators abroad issued recalls because of vehicle defects, NHTSA let those same vehicles continue driving on U.S. roads. As of 2021, the agency was years late in issuing at least 13 congressionally mandated safety regulations. Even the Government Accountability Office has faulted the NHTSA for its failure to regulate pedestrian safety. In a 2020 interview for my new book, another early administrator of NHTSA, Joan Claybrook, told me that her former agency had grown derelict in duty.
“Philosophically, they do not believe in regulation,” Claybrook said. “It has nothing to do with public health and safety. It has nothing to do with whether people are going to die in these crashes. It has to do with the political, philosophical perspective that they shouldn’t regulate anything. And it is really criminal.”
Since that interview, some hopeful signs have emerged. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently released a national road-safety plan, which includes plans to follow Europe and Japan’s decade-old model of incorporating pedestrian-crash survivability into vehicle-safety assessments, as well as a promise to pass new regulations requiring automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection in new vehicles. Still, rulemaking takes time. Automakers will resist, as Henry Ford II did in the late 1960s. Even if regulations are written, automakers will be given years to comply. In the interim, government officials will continue preaching to drivers and Americans will keep dying on the roads at outsize rates.