A 15-year push for seat belt warning systems through the federal automobile safety regulations process highlights the excruciatingly slow pace of approval and implementation for regulations that could be saving lives. The technology in question involves an alert system that reminds backseat passengers to buckle up. Research commissioned by Congress in 2004 indicates that this system would save lives, yet the readily available safety technology remains unregulated and unenforced.
Over the years, safety advocates have called for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to come up with a set of rules for automakers to implement, and in 2012 Congress gave regulators three years to act. Still, regulations for this crucial technology remain unsettled. As recently as December 2016, the rules pertaining to the seat belt warning systems appeared on a Transportation Department disclosure that said they were nearly ready to publish. Safety advocates sued the government, hoping a federal judge would force the NHTSA to act. That did not happen.
In September 2019, the NHTSA announced that it was considering acting on regulations. However, the plan that emerged merely asked for public comment to figure out how such a system would work; oddly, it mentions the fact that the technology already exists and is included on automobiles already on the roads.
Case Against Regulation
NHTSA officials claim that regulations on new technology could hinder development. They suggest that a wait-and-see approach is best. The pattern of slow progress is seen as an advantage by many in the agency. In November 2019, the Senate Commerce Committee investigated how the NHTSA plans to ensure that driver-assist technology and self-driving vehicles get implemented safely. Officials told senators that waiting to establish rules benefit innovation and competition.
Requiring car manufacturers to meet new standards demands the agency to prove that the benefits of new rules outweigh the costs of implementation. A public comment period also draws out the timeline. While the regulations process has always been necessarily thorough, safety groups are getting restless.
Other Pending Safety Standards
The NHTSA recently announced progress in its call to force automakers to adhere to guidelines mandating that hybrids and electric vehicles cannot be too quiet, addressing a safety concern that recognizes that hearing a vehicle approach provides obvious safety benefits. The announcement indicated that a date was set for implementation. The new rules go into effect in September 2020. These rules had been announced in 2016, which constitutes a four-year turnaround.
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