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Transcript: Thursday, March 31, 2005, 11 a.m. ET

Advanced Vehicle Safety Research

Joseph Kanianthra
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Thursday, March 31, 2005; 11:00 AM

Joseph Kanianthra has been with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for 29 years and oversees vehicle safety research.

Joseph Kanianthra has been with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for 29 years and oversees vehicle safety research.


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Each year, more than 6 million crashes occur on America's roadways, which cost more than 42,000 lives and $230 billion. Given the high stakes, NHTSA researchers are constantly searching for ways to better protect occupants. They look at airbags and safety belt performance, ejection mitigation, side-impact protection, roof crush, seat back strength, rear-impact protection, and vehicle compatibility. They're also exploring the next frontier in safety -- crash avoidance technology. These researchers are immersed in "human factors" research -- analyzing the effects of distraction, sleep deprivation, alcohol and other variables on drivers. NHTSA uses the National Advanced Driving Simulator in Iowa to test drivers without endangering them. It also conducts crash tests and test track research at a facility in Ohio.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Joseph Kanianthra: Hello:
I am Joseph Kanianthra, the Associate Administrator for Vehicle Safety Research in NHTSA. Along with me is William T. Hollowell, the Director of our office of Applied Research. We will be glad to answer the questions related to safety research we do in NHTSA.

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Washington, D.C.: How much does NHTSA spend on safety research every year?

Joseph Kanianthra: On average over the last 10 years, NHTSA's research budget has ranged between $25 million to $35 million annually. For example, we spend around $10 million on crashworthiness research--that is, research to protect the occupants once a crash occurs. Related to that, we spend around $14 million on biomechanics research. This is an area in which we develop test dummies to evaluate the occupant crash protection. Finally we spend around $6 million on crash avoidance research. This is research to prevent crashes from occurring in the first place.

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Manassas, Va.: What is this electronic stability control that's being talked about?

How is it different from ABS breaks?

How important a factor should it be in shopping for a new car?

Joseph Kanianthra: Electronic Stability Control is the most recently introduced safety technology in cars. It helps to keep drivers from losing control. Often, when a driver loses control, the vehicle leaves the road and ends up in a rollover crash. By keeping the vehicle on the road, you avoid the chance of occupants being ejected when roll over occurs. Anti-lock Brake Systems serve as the foundation for Electronic Stability Control (ESC). In ESC, brakes are automatically applied selectively to individual wheels, allowing vehicles to maintain their stability.

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Maryland: Is it possible to eliminate traffic fatalities through a combination of technology, education, and engineering? If so, what kind of societal change would be required to achieve zero fatalities?

Joseph Kanianthra: Our goal is to eliminate as many fatalities as possible. We are constantly striving to reach zero fatalities on our highways. We have had significant success in reducing the rate of fatalities over the last several decades, yet there is more to achieve.

Indeed, education, technology, and engineering are exactly how NHTSA is addressing the safety problems encountered on our nation's highways.

Part of our agency deals with education. For example, we work with the states to develop programs that educate drivers to the risks of driving while intoxicated, driving and not wearing the safety belts, and so forth. We also work with various commercial and governmental vehicle fleets so that the administrators will ensure their drivers wear their belts.

Via technology and engineering, we are looking at ways to prevent crashes from occurring and to protect vehicle occupants when they do occur.

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Allentown, Pennsylvania: I'm so annoyed with all the people using their cell phones and paying no attention to their driving. My friends and I argue about this a lot. Is it really risky to use a cell phone when you're driving?

Joseph Kanianthra: Research shows that driving while using a cell phone can pose serious cognitive distraction and degrade driver performance. But we don't have enough evidence to say how many crashes are caused by cell phone use. The real problem is not cell phone use, per se, but driver distraction in general. This includes fiddling with the radio, talking to passengers, eating, putting on makeup, as well as cell phone use. The driving task requires your full attention and any other activity that takes your attention away could lead to a crash. NHTSA estimates that driver distraction--from multiple sources--contributes to 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes.

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Washington, D.C.: Do side curtain air bags protect people who are involved in rollover accidents?

Joseph Kanianthra: Side curtain air bags come in two "flavors."

The first type protects occupants involved in side crashes. For example, when a vehicle is struck by another in the side, the side air bag deploys. There are special sensors on the vehicle to accomplish this.

The second type prevents ejections during rollovers. In addition to providing side crash protection, as mentioned above, automakers also have added additional sensors in some of their vehicles to determine if a rollover is taking place. In these, the side curtains also deploy to keep the occupants from being ejected from the vehicle during a rollover.

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Sacramento, Calif.: Nowadays there are so many oversized vehicles on the road. What is NHTSA doing to protect people like us in small cars who can get hit by these giant SUVs?

Joseph Kanianthra: This is an issue that we at the agency have termed vehicle "compatibility."

In our research, we initially had been focused on heavy car to light car crash protection. However, when we analyzed our field crash data, we saw that a bigger issue was the crashes between pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans with the smaller cars.

Our research program is now focusing on how to reduce the severity of these types of crashes. Already, we have upgraded our safety standard for frontal crash protection by requiring advanced air bags that offer greater protection. Also, we are now in the process of upgrading our safety standard for side protection by requiring improved head and chest protection.

Finally, we are now looking at ways to improve vehicle structures so that they cause less harm to the occupants of the other vehicles involved in a multi-vehicle crash. We are looking at improving the alignment of these vehicle structures as well as how strong these structures are.

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Lanham, Maryland: Why aren't there seatbelts on all school buses? I'm the father of five young kids and I personally consider this an outrage.

Joseph Kanianthra: It sounds counterintuitive to say that it's safer not to have belts on our large school buses. But that's the case. NHTSA research has shown that the current school bus safety restraint system, called "compartmentalization," is extremely effective. This system protects children by providing a protective bubble through closely spaced seats with well-padded seat backs designed to absorb the energy of a crash. During a crash, when a child moves forward into the padded seat back, the force of the crash is distributed throughout the child's body. At the same time, the strongest parts of the child's body, such as the knees and upper torso, are engaged against the seat in front. However, when children use lap belts, their hips stay put while their upper body lunges forward toward the seat in front of them. The force of the crash causes the head to hit the seat in front of then and then snap back, causing head and neck injuries. School buses provide one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States. In fact, students are much safer riding on a school bus than going to school in cars, SUVs, or other passenger vehicles. Although large school buses are not required by NHTSA to be equipped with safety belts, some states do require them. NHTSA does mandate belts in small van-based school buses.

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Bloomington, Indiana: I know that all new cars must have at least two airbags in the front seat, for the driver and the passenger. But are you requiring the manufacturers to equip cars with side airbags?

Joseph Kanianthra: At this point, there are no requirements that a car must have side air bags. However, we are in the process of upgrading our safety standard for side crash protection. We have proposed a test in which the vehicle impacts a pole on the side. In this test, we have proposed requirements for improved head and chest protection. In order to meet the head protection requirements, in all likelihood, the automakers will utilize side air bags, a proven technology.

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Washington, D.C.: I've heard that some automobile manufacturers have developed a feature where an "alarm" goes off if you start drifting out of your lane. Is this available in the U.S., and will this help prevent drowsy driving?

Joseph Kanianthra: You have heard correctly. A number of automakers have made lane departure warning systems available in some of their current models. While these systems were not designed to address drowsy driving, they may provide some benefit toward that. More specifically, these systems address driver inattention and/or distraction. For example, in reaching for the radio dials, the vehicle may begin to drift from the lane. The audible warning that is provided alerts the driver to this.

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Washington, D.C.: The so called "black boxes" that collect data in cars can help safety researchers enhance the crash-worthiness of vehicles, and if connected in real-time can eventually lead to emergency responders knowing more information about a potential accident situation before arriving. Will NHTSA regulate their use, play a role in developing standards, and/or help fend off privacy advocates who are against black boxes even though they can save lives?

Joseph Kanianthra: We agree that the event data recorders (i.e., black boxes) have a great potential in helping researchers understand what happens during a crash. The agency already has a proposal to standardize a minimum set of data to be collected. We have received numerous comments from the public, automakers, and the safety community in general regarding our proposal. We are now in the process of finalizing our next steps.

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Fairfax, Va.: How important is the role of the federal Government in inducing car manufacturers to include the latest safety technology? Do you feel the feds do enough to encourage including new safety features in production models? Can they do more?

Joseph Kanianthra: We believe the role of the federal government is important for several reasons. When technologies are introduced to address safety problems in the real world, we need to make sure that those technologies will indeed enhance safety. Another reason for government involvement is to "level the playing field" so that technologies that are intended to solve safety problems perform at least to a minimum level. However, the difficulty NHTSA has in establishing performance requirements is that it doesn't mandate technologies. NHTSA research is looking seriously at ways to seek alternative approaches that hasten the introduction of safety technologies. For example, the agency is considering the development of suitable test procedures for evaluating the potential of safety technologies in real world situations. This could be used for developing consumer information and rating vehicles' performance. As a result, this could drive an accelerated introduction of new safety technologies into the U.S. fleet.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: It seems like people are willing to pay for convenience - like finding ways to avoid traffic congestion. Are they equally willing to pay for safety?

Joseph Kanianthra: Wow, have times changed. When I first started in 1976, automakers had a very difficult time marketing safety features. Now look at what is happening today. One can hardly watch television, look at a magazine, and so forth without seeing safety as the main feature of the advertisement. Yes, safety sells!

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Bowie, Md.: Are there other types of "accident prevention" technologies beyond the lane departure warning you mentioned?

Joseph Kanianthra: For more than 10 years, NHTSA has been researching many crash prevention systems that have enormous potential for improving safety. Every year, about 6.3 million police-reported crashes of various types and severities occur in the U.S. Three types of crashes predominate: rear-end crashes, road departure crashes, and intersection collisions. There are many technologies that could detect impending crashes. These could be used to provide timely warnings to help drivers avoid crashes. They might even be capable of exercising limited control over the vehicle, or possibly compensating for driver performance deficiencies. In cases where a crash can't be prevented altogether, then technologies that are currently available could be used to reduce crash severity or make in-vehicle technologies more effective to protect the occupants. However, much research remains to be done and NHTSA is currently engaged in this.

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Joseph Kanianthra: Boy... did the time fly! Thanks for all the great questions. I'm impressed with your knowledge and interest. I could have gone on for hours. Hope we can do this again soon.

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