For the past two years, Michael Sanders has been part of a coalition that succeeded in lobbying to get a package of auto safety provisions attached to the $295 billion highway bill that just passed Congress. It requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set deadlines for a series of hotly debated safety issues, from strengthening vehicle roofs to improving power window switches to protect children.
Though the agency has many of the same safety provisions high on its to-do list, the coalition -- which includes medical professionals, parent and consumer groups, insurance companies and auto parts suppliers -- wanted legislative certainty that the initiatives would not languish on the regulatory drawing board or be withdrawn.
Sanders was particularly interested in a requirement that the safety agency start a rulemaking aimed at reducing the chances people are ejected from vehicles in crashes. That's because he is DuPont's global director for automotive safety, and the company has been making laminated, or safety, glass for vehicle windshields since 1938. DuPont hopes a new rule would see their product used widely in rear and side windows to help eliminate ejections.
"We have the technology ready to help," said Sanders. "We have been active with NHTSA for years in regulatory testing." He noted that in 2002, the agency didn't complete a rulemaking on side-impact protection that included the possibility of using laminated glass to resist ejection.
Last year, there were 10,553 deaths attributed to vehicles rolling over, 60 percent the result of people -- mostly unbelted -- being catapulted through windows or doors, according to NHTSA research.
Besides addressing ejections, the bill sets deadlines for rules on creating a stability standard to prevent rollovers, keeping doors closed in a crash and providing side-impact crash protection.
The bill directs NHTSA to study ways for drivers to avoid backing over children in driveways. (It also asks the agency to start counting those deaths, since government databases do not include fatalities that happen in parking lots or driveways.)
For the first time, the agency will have to test 15-passenger vans for rollover and side and front crashes. Until now, NHTSA has issued consumer advisories on how to drive and load the vans to avoid rollover, which, it says, has improved their safe use.
Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a nonprofit safety group that lobbied for the legislation, said locking the regulators into a schedule was particularly important with the impending departure of NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey W. Runge, who is leaving at the end of the month to become the Homeland Security Department's new chief medical officer.
That's because new agency directors are not bound to stick with the dates for his regulatory agenda, she said, and until now there has been no requirement they meet any deadlines.
For example, Congress in 1991 required NHTSA to begin a rulemaking to prevent the risk of rollover. The agency began work on it the next year. But in 1994, the rulemaking was terminated. Since then, the agency has issued rules providing for warning labels, and it tests vehicles for rollover and publishes the results. The new highway bill requires a proposal to reduce rollovers by Oct. 1, 2006, and a final rule three years later. The deadlines in the legislation can only be changed by Congress.
Runge said in an interview that NHTSA set its own rulemaking priority plan 18 months ago and has since updated it.
"We set the agenda based on real-world safety problems, not on what is politically expedient or someone's pet problems," he said. He added that the agency should be held accountable but said it does not need Congress to direct its regulatory agenda.
Runge said NHTSA will begin a roof-crush rulemaking this year (that would update a 1971 standard); it has a proposed rule on strengthening door locks; it will have a final rule to provide head protection in side-impact crashes next year; and it is working toward a proposal to prevent rollover by requiring that "four wheels stay on the road."
One initiative in the bill not on NHTSA's list is posting the results of agency crash tests on car windows, so consumers could determine how crashworthy the vehicle might be. The legislation also gives the agency more than $8 million a year to buy new vehicles so it can keep testing new models.
Robert Strassburger, vice president of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the industry didn't lobby against the package of deadlines, in part, because it is installing safety equipment independently. For example, he said, 50 percent of new cars have electronic-stability control, a system that helps keep a vehicle from rolling over. About 75 percent of 2005 vehicles offer head-protecting airbags for the first row of seats.
But consumer groups say such equipment is often found on high-end cars and is optional on others.
"By setting standards fleet-wide, it will lower costs over time, and the equipment will be there," said Robert Hurley, who does lobbying for auto-safety suppliers.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen and a former NHTSA administrator, said the legislation "could produce the most significant safety enhancement since airbags were required in all vehicles . . . " under the provisions of 1991 legislation.
Said Runge: "The fact is, we all want the same thing -- fewer deaths."