Remarks: Automotive News World Congress
Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
As Prepared for Delivery
Jason, thank you for that introduction and for the invitation to speak to the World Congress.
It’s a significant understatement to say that I was surprised and deeply honored by the recent recognition from you and your staff. But I was especially proud for two reasons: First, it’s an important recognition of the hard work by more than 600 men and women of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, work they have been doing long before I arrived at the agency a little more than a year ago. Many of the concepts behind the innovative enforcement actions you have highlighted and the work to reassess and strengthen our defect recall system were generated before my arrival. As Administrator, my role has been to allow smart ideas and hard work by our career staff to take root and grow.
Second, as pleased as we all were with the recognition, the “why” of this award is more important. There has been a lot of media attention in the last year about record fines and get-tough attitudes. But the staff of Automotive News recognized the bigger picture: the efforts NHTSA is making to work in partnership with the auto industry, to focus not on headline-grabbing numbers but on the structural and philosophical changes that will bring long-lasting improvements in safety.
So today I’d like to discuss the concept at the heart of NHTSA’s efforts, the drive to create a more proactive safety culture in the auto industry. And let me begin by making a couple admissions.
First, we at NHTSA understand that change is hard, because at NHTSA, we have had our own experiences with the need for transformation. We know that acknowledging shortcomings is not an enjoyable experience, and that addressing them requires concentrated effort. We know what it’s like to be in the spotlight, and not the flashy, fun, auto show press conference kind. We know that hard work and determination to excel do not make us any less human; they do not eliminate human error. And we know that organizational change takes time and commitment.
We have committed to making changes at NHTSA because the status quo clearly wasn’t sufficient. And I am so proud of the work NHTSA’s men and women have done to accomplish not just what Congress, the media or the new administrator expected, but to go beyond those expectations.
The second admission I will make is that, for us, the era of Big Recall is not a sign of progress. Record civil penalties are not a metric of success. Folks, if we’re levying a big fine, it means there has been a safety crisis. Americans have been put at risk. Too often, it means American lives have been lost. And NHTSA’s job is to save those lives, every one of them. NHTSA is truly successful not when we catch safety violations and wrongdoing and hand down penalties, but when we work together with industry to prevent that kind of crisis from ever occurring.
Success for NHTSA is collaborating with this industry to foster a proactive safety culture, a culture that makes safety an essential element in every activity an organization undertakes. A proactive safety culture doesn’t avoid talk of problems. It certainly doesn’t conceal them. A proactive safety culture is one that seeks out problems, rewards those who identify them, and addresses them aggressively. A proactive safety culture infuses every part of an organization, from the lab to the test track to the factory floor to the C-suite. A proactive safety culture means safety isn’t the responsibility of an office or a division – it is the responsibility of every single individual. A proactive safety culture means embracing the idea that customers will demand, should expect, and definitely deserve zero safety defects. And it means an industry, everyone from the engineers in the software labs to the sales managers at the dealership, that doesn’t just talk about safety but is willing to sacrifice other priorities in order to make its customers safer.
I hope, and I believe, that what I’m describing sounds familiar to many of you. Since my first official trip as NHTSA administrator, to last year’s North American International Auto Show, where I met with representatives of all the major vehicle manufacturers, I have learned about the extraordinary progress that auto manufacturers, their suppliers and others in this industry are making on safety. Cementing into place a proactive safety culture across the industry is possible because it’s already a reality in many, many places. The examples of proactive safety provide lessons just as important as the lessons we learn from the times organizations fall short.
So let me highlight a few real-world examples of proactive safety culture. And I want to begin with the man who will follow me in the program, Mike Jackson, and his team at AutoNation. As you probably know, the Department of Transportation has asked Congress to require used car dealers to repair vehicles under a safety recall before delivering those vehicles to customers, which would mirror the requirement to remedy new cars before sale. The department continues to believe this is the right approach.
But AutoNation isn’t waiting for a government mandate. In September, the company announced that it will repair any recalled vehicle before sale. Mike said, “Sure there will be a disruptive period and an initial cost but we feel it is the right thing to do.” Now, there are those who would tell you there is no safety benefit to the actions Mike and AutoNation have taken. But the families of Americans killed or injured by ruptured Takata air bag inflators in used vehicles would tell you otherwise. Someday, we will look back at this timewhen we allowed the sale of vehicles with safety defects and wonder what were we thinking. And when we close that safety loophole, we will acknowledge the proactive safety leadership of Mike Jackson and AutoNation as a big reason why.
There may be no stronger sign of proactive safety than the steps industry is taking to incorporate crash avoidance technology. The potential safety benefits of these innovations are hard to overstate. For more than a century, vehicle safety has meant assuming that crashes are inevitable and designing to protect occupants from the consequences. Now, increasingly, technology can prevent those crashes from ever occurring.
Last fall, 10 vehicle manufacturers joined NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in committing to the principle that automatic emergency braking, a key crash-avoidance technology, should be a standard feature in new vehicles. The companies, rather than waiting for a federal mandate, committed to working with NHTSA and IIHS to work out the details of implementing that commitment. A number of additional manufacturers have expressed interest in joining the process, and I am optimistic that soon, we will be able to announce timelines and other details that will bring AEB to Americans in large numbers before NHTSA could accomplish that progress through a rulemaking requirement.
One roadblock to widespread consumer acceptance of these technology breakthroughs is the challenge of securing the sophisticated electronics and computer systems that enable them. To meet that challenge, the auto industry has established an Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or ISAC, to rapidly share information about and solutions to cybersecurity vulnerabilities across the industry. NHTSA encouraged formation of the ISAC and we’re pleased it’s up and running. In concert with that effort, NHTSA is working with industry to develop a series of cybersecurity best practices that would provide the foundation for cybersecurity efforts across the industry. We’re leading a federal effort to gather industry representatives for a cybersecurity roundtable in Washington later this month, an event industry has embraced. Now, it’s important to note that while cybersecurity is an obvious and very public safety concern, there has to date not been a single instance of a successful malicious hack that affected vehicle safety. The fact that industry, in cooperation with NHTSA, is working to address this threat before, and not after, Americans are directly at risk, is an example of proactive safety.
Under Secretary Foxx’s leadership, the Department of Transportation is committed to boosting technology innovations that increase highway safety. But DOT and NHTSA are not limiting that push to active crash-avoidance or automation systems. For several years, NHTSA has encouraged the development of the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, or DADSS. DADSS is an effort to develop an instantaneous system that would detect a driver’s alcohol impairment passively and, essentially, instantly once they try to start the vehicle. The program is developing two potential methods, one that would passively detect alcohol in the driver’s breath, and another that would use lasers to scan a finger or thumb and measure blood alcohol content. NHTSA and DOT see DADSS as a system that parents of teenagers or operators of commercial fleets would quickly embrace.
The work has progressed to the point where the question is not can DADSS work, but how quickly can it be offered it to the American public. And it would not be possible without, first, the support of Congress, and second, the industry coalition that is working on the project alongside NHTSA, a coalition headed by Robert Strassburger of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Last June at a DOT/NHTSA DADSS event, the enthusiasm and energy generated by a gathering of diverse safety advocates, activists like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and auto industry representatives showed how collaboration can drive safety forward.
The last example I’ll share demonstrates that there are opportunities to further proactive safety culture even in the chaos of a safety crisis. The Takata recall situation is unprecedented in American history – 11 manufacturers and more than 19 million cars at present, a number very likely to grow, perhaps by a lot. The fact that this crisis festered so long, and that some made efforts to obscure its seriousness and delay action, sobers all of us at NHTSA and should sober everyone in the industry. But we should also acknowledge the fact that industry has come together, not only to establish a testing consortium to assess the technical issues involved, but joined with NHTSA to implement a coordinated remedy program that will get this problem fixed years faster than might have occurred without coordinated action and will prioritize the highest-risk inflators. This is proactive safety, it’s a model of how NHTSA hopes to work with industry in the future, and it’s going to protect the lives and safety of millions.
Ladies and gentlemen, I will consider NHTSA truly successful at our lifesaving mission when the narrative around this industry is built from stories like these, and not from headlines about massive recalls, record fines and damaged consumer trust. Make no mistake, NHTSA stands ready to use all its tools – including our enforcement and regulatory authority – to protect public safety and address safety issues. We have no hesitation to do so when necessary. But pieces are in place to make proactive safety the story of the auto industry. Secretary Foxx has directed us to work over the next year to make proactive safety culture a reality, and we are committed to working with industry to help make that happen. I hope these examples can serve as guideposts in our drive toward proactive safety.
As most of you know, while NHTSA’s regulatory and enforcement efforts make the headlines, our efforts to combat unsafe human behavior is at the heart of our mission. Every day, hundreds of public servants at NHTSA and thousands of safety professionals across the country fight impaired driving, failure to use seat belts or motorcycle helmets, and other human choices that put safety at risk. I want to leave you with the story of one of those professionals.
Noah Leotta was working a special DUI enforcement effort in suburban Washington, D.C., on the night of December 3, just a few short weeks ago. Already at just 24 years old, Officer Leotta had earned a reputation among his colleagues in the Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department for his determination to prevent drunk driving. His chief called him “an example of what every cop should be.” As he was making a traffic stop of a suspected drunk driver that night, a second driver, who later told police he’d been drinking for four hours and smoking marijuana, struck and killed him.
Officer Leotta died working to prevent the very crime that killed him, and he represents thousands of brave Americans who every day put their lives on the line to save our lives on our roadways. None of us are asked to make such a sacrifice, but I hope we are all inspired by it – inspired to ask what more we can do, to ask, “Is safety really our highest priority, or is it merely one of many competing priorities?”
At NHTSA, we feel we owe it to Officer Leotta, to his colleagues across the nation, and to every American on our roads to use every tool at our disposal to protect public safety. While enforcement actions dominate the headlines, encouraging and facilitating deep, durable proactive safety culture is our most powerful tool. Over the next year, our goal is to help bring proactive safety to every corner of the industry.