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
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.
John D. Graham
Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs
The Honorable Jeffrey W. Runge