NHTSA Stonewalls, People Die

Dear President Bush,

You and your White House have been sitting on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) since your arrival in January 2001, thus assuring the giant auto companies that NHTSA-toothless under President Bill Clinton and previous administrations– continues morphing even further away from the technology-forcing, life- saving regulatory agency it is supposed to be, to an industry consulting firm.

The result has been tens of thousands of American fatalities and serious injuries that could have been prevented had you and President Clinton simply urged NHTSA to follow its statutory obligations, lately under Congressionally mandated deadlines, with readily feasible, practical safety technologies.

Instead, you stacked the deck with your Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, former president and CEO of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA). The rest, as they say, “is commentary.”

NHTSA is now set to replace an obsolete motor vehicle roof crush resistance standard that became effective in 1973. You can continue to condemn thousands of Americans to preventable deaths by permitting NHTSA to issue a new, deficient standard, or you can take command and smoke out the corporate lobbyists from Detroit and allow NHTSA to issue FMVSS 216—Roof Crush Resistance at a strength-to-weight (SWR) ratio of at least 4 from the present inadequate standard of 1.5.

Eight models from such companies as Volvo, Saab, Toyota, VW and Honda already meet or exceed the SWR of 4. Note the countries of origin. Note the absence of U.S. manufacturers. The Dodge Ram pickup truck and the Ford F-250 pick-up truck have a SWR down at 1.7.

You may wish to brief yourself about the horrible toll on our country’s highways during the past 35 years due to marshmallow structured roofs. The American fatalities and serious injuries alone total more than the entire number of soldiers you have driven to Iraq, many of whom were deployed without adequate body and Humvee armor.

Then there are the quadriplegics and the paraplegics and the thousands of other human beings left defenseless by an auto safety agency under your command that has been at a standstill for years instead of functioning as a law enforcement branch in the Department of Transportation.

You need to see the visuals. You need to see the pictures of the crushed, the pictures of the vehicles whose roofs displaced the “survival space” of the drivers and passengers. You need to speak to the families of the victims who were on the receiving end of such obstinate, criminal negligence by the auto manufacturers’ executives who will not let their own engineers put in the simple technical fixes year after year.

Remove the corporatists from your White House schedule for a day and invite some of these suffering citizens, their families and champions. Include Senators Mark Pryor and Tom Coburn who will preside over a Senate hearing on this subject in early June.

Keep in mind that even NHTSA, in its industry-indentured cautious fashion, managed to declare the obvious in 2005:

“In sum, the agency believes that there is a relationship between the amount of roof intrusion and the risk of injury to belted occupants in rollover events. But the agency still mimics the resistance of GM, Ford and Chrysler to any dynamic rollover test that safety advocates favor to assure effective compliance.”

A President is not selected or elected to close the doors of state courts to wrongfully injured people who want and need to hold their corporate perpetrators accountable. You must recall your oft-repeated phrase about holding people responsible for their behavior, and actions, with the exception of yourself, and drop your attack on our civil justice system. Therefore, delete the federal pre-emption clause expected in the forthcoming standards that prevent the state judiciaries from hearing product liability suits in this area of vehicle design and construction.

Your legal advisors should point out that in the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, there is a specific provision that reads: “Compliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter does not exempt a person from liability at common law.”

Those words were put in the law to prevent just such a federal pre-emption as NHTSA now prepares to facilitate. Twenty-six State Attorneys General opposed pre-emption in a letter to NHTSA back in 2005.

With your invited guests, suggested above, hold a White House news conference. Point to the CEOs in Detroit, and exclaim “Bring ‘em on.” Remember, you’re either with the American people or you’re with the big auto bosses.

Sincerely,

Ralph Nader

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