All About the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

traffic safety

There is no shortage of government agencies with fancy acronyms. From the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN), you'll find an agency for just about anything. Whether this is a good thing is a matter of some debate in American society, but we think everyone can agree that it's important to understand what these agencies and departments do, and how they use our tax dollars.

While the IRS, DARPA, and FINCEN fall outside of our area of expertise, we are very much interested in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the role they play in keeping us all safe on the road. The NHTSA falls under the Department of Transportation (DOT), which serves in a massive number of areas we could never cover in a single article. So, to get us started on oru chosen area of focus, here is a brief history of the NHTSA, along with a description of their accomplishments and functions.


The Beginning

The DOT was established in 1966, with a mission to, "Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future." From that point on, the advancement of government policies governing the safety of automobiles moved quickly.

In 1968, the very first federal safety standards for automobiles were introduced. These standards were intended to protect American drivers against death or injury due to defects or oversights in the design and construction of vehicles. This advancement was followed by the established of the NHTSA (at that time known as the National Highway Safety Bureau) as part of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. This act was the government's response to the increasing number of deaths and injuries on the road; since 1925, vehicular accident fatalities had increased six-fold.

This situation could perhaps be best described as the government attempting to catch safety standards up to the rapid progress of technology. The NHTSA's official mission is "(...) to save lives, prevent injuries, and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards, and enforcement."


Advancements In Traffic Safety

To list all of the contributions the NHTSA and affiliated organizations have made over the years in the area of traffic safety would require an encyclopedic effort, rather than an article. But there are some notable highlights.

  • In 1974, the national speed limit was established and set at 55 m.p.h. This limit would later be adjusted and ultimately entirely repealed.
  • In 1985, the NHTSA introduced an awareness campaign featuring crash-test dummies named Vince and Larry, to promote the importance of seatbelt usage.
  • In 1993, the NHTSA rolled out a star rating system to indicate the relative safety of vehicles. Ratings from one to five stars told consumers at a glance how safe a vehicle was, and made it easier for safety-minded auto buyers to make their purchasing decision. This rating system has been updated many times over the years to include new requirements as automotive technology has advanced.
  • In 1999, the government began requiring vehicle manufacturers to include frontal impact airbags in all new vehicles.
  • In 2007, Electronic Stability Control and Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems were mandated as required features on all new vehicles.
  • In 2011, traffic fatalities hit their lowest point since 1949, despite Americans driving more.
  • In 2015, seat belt usage hit an all-time high at 87 percent.


The NHTSA Today

Today, the NHTSA oversees an enormous range of initiatives and functions as compared to the relative simplicity of its early days. This includes gathering statistics on traffic safety, providing guidelines for cyclist and pedestrian safety, overseeing and enforcing fuel economy standards and working hand-in-hand with emergency medical services providers to improve quality of care and transportation, among many other tasks.

While the possibility of over-expansion and responsibility bloat is a risk for any government agency or other large institution, it's easy to draw a line from the late 1960s until now and see how traffic safety has greatly improved over time. It's undeniable that the NHTSA has saved lives through two key efforts: requiring safety improvements on the part of manufacturers and spreading awareness of traffic safety information to drivers nationwide. Let's hope the NHTSA continues to focus on that core piece of their mission and make the roads safer for all of us for many years to come.