December 7, 2001The Honorable Michael P. Jackson
Department of Transportation
400 Seventh Street, SW
Washington, DC 20590
Dear Mr. Jackson:
The purpose of this letter is to request that the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) consider giving greater priority to modifying its frontal occupant protection standard by establishing a high-speed, frontal offset crash test. Such a test would seek to improve protection for the lower extremities of automobile and light truck occupants. A frontal offset crash test - which is currently conducted in the European New Car Assessment Program and by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - involves crashing a portion of the test vehicle's front end (instead of the entire front end) to evaluate the structural integrity of the vehicle, including the "toe pan," which helps protect the feet and legs of occupants.
Historically, one of NHTSA's principal safety goals has been to enhance the protection of vehicle occupants involved in crashes that result in life-threatening injuries to the head, neck, and chest. Safety standards requiring the installation of seat belts and air bags have reduced the frequency and severity of such injuries. As a result, more people are surviving previously fatal crashes. However, I believe there is room for improvement in the area of lower extremity injuries. I believe that paying more attention to the protection of lower extremities could build upon NHTSA's impressive record of success in addressing upper-body injury risks. I was therefore encouraged to see an offset test rulemaking in NHTSA's recent Regulatory Agenda and urge the agency to provide this initiative significant priority.
Substantial safety improvements may be possible. Despite the existing occupant protection systems in cars and light trucks, about 3,300 people are killed and 400,000 are injured annually in frontal offset crashes. Although lower-body injuries are rarely fatal, they are often serious enough to require lengthy hospitalization and rehabilitation, and they sometimes result in years of chronic pain and impairment.
Although I realize that more thorough benefit assessment needs to be done, I suspect that the benefits of such action could substantially exceed its costs. As NHTSA noted in November 2000, a report prepared for the Australian government estimates that a new offset test may result in a 15 percent reduction in the "cost of trauma" (the product of the frequency of injuries and the cost to the public). Most of these benefits would result from a reduction in lower body and leg injuries. NHTSA's preliminary estimates then were that, for vehicles that would not currently pass this test, structural modifications would cost $14 per vehicle. Assuming that 25 percent of the fleet would need to be modified, the total annual cost to consumers would be $60 million dollars.
If you determine that this matter should be given greater priority, a number of questions would still need to be investigated. Most importantly, NHTSA would have to refine its estimates of the specific safety benefits that a new offset test would generate. Such estimates would need to take into account potential losses in existing safety benefits due to possible changes in vehicle structure and design. For example, NHTSA would need to examine whether implementing a new offset test might create disbenefits in other crash modes such as side impacts. NHTSA would also need to estimate the number of existing vehicles that would have to be modified to pass the revised safety standard. In exploring these issues, NHTSA should assess the incremental benefits and costs of setting the new crash test at different speeds. NHTSA should also evaluate the relative merits of using different types of barriers as a potential test device. I would also encourage NHTSA to consider the possible benefits of subjecting the supporting technical and economic analyses to external peer review. I believe that taking these steps would help NHTSA ascertain the cost effectiveness of instituting the contemplated test and develop an appropriate phase-in schedule.
In requesting that NHTSA give greater priority to considering the expansion of its frontal occupant protection standard, I recognize that NHTSA faces resource constraints and other legislative mandates, such as the TREAD Act. Accordingly, I simply request that NHTSA consider whether this matter should be given greater priority in the foreseeable future. I would appreciate an initial response to this inquiry within 60 days. Please do not hesitate to contact me or Jeff Hill if you would like to discuss this matter further.