Speeches and Presentations

Remarks: Washington Auto Show keynote address

Dr. Mark R. Rosekind , NHTSA Administrator

Thursday, January 21, 2016 | Washington, D.C.

Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D.
Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
U.S. Department of Transportation
Thursday, January 21, 2016
Washington, D.C.
As Prepared for Delivery

Thanks for that introduction, and thank you to the Washington Area New Auto Dealers Association for inviting me here. Every year at this time, the focus of the automotive world shifts from Detroit, and the big auto show there, to Washington, where the Washington Auto Show and the SAE Government-Industry Meeting dominate the headlines.

And, just as there is in Detroit, there is plenty to celebrate here. The President was just in Detroit, talking about how the American auto industry has bounced back from the depths of the Great Recession to record sales and a strong future for American companies, American workers and the American economy.

Not only are vehicles selling better than ever, but they’re safer than ever, a testament to more than five decades of hard work by NHTSA, manufacturers and a corps of dedicated safety advocates. And on display on show floors in Detroit and here in Washington are a breathtaking array of technological advances that promise a true revolution in automotive safety.

Last week in Detroit, Secretary Foxx made two major announcements that position DOT and NHTSA to prepare for this new era, and in fact to help speed its arrival. On Thursday, the secretary announced a series of steps that NHTSA will take to help enable vehicle automation, and a $4 billion, 10-year commitment from the Obama administration to speed the nation’s capability to take full advantage of this new era.

On Friday, the Secretary announced a historic agreement with 18 auto manufacturers on a series of concrete commitments to safety.

Combined, I think these two announcements could make a turning point in NHTSA’s efforts to save lives. First, automation technology promises the biggest revolution in the history of roadway safety. Since the Model T, vehicle safety has focused on assuming that some crashes are inevitable, and designing to reduce the carnage. Today, it is not science fiction to suggest that technology could, sometime in the not-too-distant future, help us avoid the vast majority of fatal crashes.

For all the amazing success of the last few decades, it’s clear that progress on vehicle safety is slowing. There’s a big chart on the wall at the agency, charting the decrease in lives lost over the years. That line is flattening out. And there are too many lives at stake for us to accept slow, steady, incremental progress – especially when our current estimates for 2015 suggest, not another year of marginal improvement, but potential for a significant increase in highway deaths.

At NHTSA, we know 32,675 people died on our roads in 2014. We will not be satisfied until that number is zero. But at the current pace, it will take us decades to get there. And there are too many lives at stake to wait.

These two announcements hold the promise of bending that curve. In automation, there are a suite of technologies, from radars and cameras to artificial intelligence to V2V communications that can address the vast majority of the 94 percent of fatal crashes in which human choices or mistakes are the critical factor.

The second announcement could have just as transformative effect on attitudes as automation may have on vehicles. What the secretary is trying to do is change the conversation on safety from one in which we’re reacting to issues after they appear, to one in which we’re catching them sooner or preventing them from happening at all. As he said on Friday, real safety is finding and fixing defects before someone gets hurt, rather than just punishing a manufacturer after the damage is done.

If regulations and enforcement are our only tools to protect the public, then we are restricted to more of the same old story – cat-and-mouse games between regulator and the regulated; endless rounds of cost-benefit analysis and regulatory red tape before new rules can be enacted; processes that lag far behind the pace of technological advancement. Let me repeat what the Secretary made abundantly clear last week: We have not given up the use of those tools. Anyone paying attention over the past year should know we are not reluctant to use those tools.

But if you’ve spent time around other safety-critical industries, and particularly around the commercial aviation industry, you know that more is possible.

You know that it is possible to create a culture in which every individual in every organization, public and private, puts safety at the top of the priority list, and never compromises on its No. 1 standing. You can put systems in place where industry and government collaborate to identify and address safety problems, because both industry and government have safety as their primary goal.

So the agreement we announced on Friday can have an impact for decades to come. But it will also help us in the here and now. And let me discuss one big reason why.

Among the commitments from manufacturers is to work with us to improve the pace at which recalled vehicles are repaired. Doing so will help us address a major safety challenge.

In 2014, NHTSA issued a record number of recalls for a record number of vehicles. And I can tell you today that the numbers from 2015 are in. Last year, nearly 900 vehicle recalls were filed with NHTSA, a new record. Those recalls involved more than 51 million vehicles. That is slightly above 2014’s record, which after adjustments stands at just below 51 million.

So, massive recalls are still a prominent feature of the safety landscape. NHTSA has made major efforts in the last year to improve our processes for identifying vehicle defects, and that effort will continue. We also hope the agreement with major automakers announced last week will help prevent problems and identify them sooner when they do occur. But identifying defects is not enough; we have to make sure they get fixed.

At the all-day recall summit NHTSA held last spring, the two major manufacturer trade groups announced a research effort to find the roadblocks to effective recall campaigns. Much of that research has been completed, and two important lessons emerged.

The first is that consumers who receive recall notices think like automotive engineers. Or at least, they are performing their own risk assessments and deciding when – or in too many cases, when not to take the car in to have it repaired. And second, there is a very strong correlation between socio-economic status and recall completion. Not surprisingly, if you’re working two low-wage jobs with no paid time off just to keep food on the table, you might not consider it a priority to get a recall fixed.

We have focused a lot in the last year on making sure that all vehicle owners, and not just those buying luxury cars, enjoy the benefit of advances in safety technology. But this is another example where we need to democratize safety. I hope the agreement reached last week will help make fixing all recalled vehicles a priority, regardless of who owns them.

This is a high priority item for NHTSA, and we are taking action.

Today, I’m announcing the launch of “Safe Cars Save Lives,” an advertising campaign to raise the level of understanding in the American public of the actions we all need to take to keep our families safe from vehicle safety defects

The year-long digital ad campaign, accompanied by online video and information resources, is designed promote use of NHTSA’s VIN lookup tool regularly to check for open recalls, and to encourage consumers, if they discover a recall, to take quick action. The campaign makes a simple point: Taking action on a safety recall keeps you and the people you love safe.

This campaign is a big step, but it’s in some ways just a down payment; raising awareness and encouraging action will require sustained and dedicated effort, and I am hopeful that the commitments made last week to work together on improving recall rates will include broader action to affect public attitudes. We are eager to work with companies, trade associations, and others on this important effort.

We also committed last week to work with manufacturers on outreach to others with a stake in the recall process, and dealers play a central role in the recall completion effort. So let me take this opportunity to encourage WANADA’s members and dealers across the country to take two important steps.

First, ensure that you make recall service visits a high priority. Communicate clearly to consumers that recalls represent a risk they should address, and find ways to make it as easy as possible for consumers to have their vehicle remedied. You are at the front lines in our battle to address these defects, and we need you in the fight.

Which brings me to my second request: If you do not already, please consider making it the policy of your dealership that you will not sell or rent any vehicle, new or used, without first repairing any safety defects.

As you probably know, the FAST Act, which President Obama signed in December, requires rental cars in most cases to be free of defects before they’re rented to consumers. 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.

Now, there are those who would tell you there is no safety benefit to making sure that a vehicle is free of defects before it’s rented or sold. But the families of Americans killed or injured by ruptured Takata air bag inflators in used vehicles would tell you otherwise.

Would taking such a step involve difficulties for auto dealers? Absolutely. But a proactive safety culture means eliminating risk must be the top priority.

And the nation’s largest used car dealer is demonstrating that these obstacles can be overcome. In September, AutoNation announced that it will repair any recalled vehicle before sale. CEO Mike Jackson said, “Sure there will be a disruptive period and an initial cost but we feel it is the right thing to do.” Someday, we will look back at this time when we allowed the sale of vehicles with safety defects and wonder what were we thinking. I urge all of you to follow AutoNation’s lead and get on the right side of history on this issue.

You are going to hear NHTSA talk a lot in the year to come about proactive safety, about the need for all of us with a role in protecting the public to make safety our highest priority. Doing so will require new ways of thinking for NHTSA, for automakers and suppliers, for dealers, for safety advocates and for the public. As we celebrate a record year for auto sales and the amazing technologies that are on the way, I hope we can all commit to embracing the opportunity we have in this moment to embrace new approaches to old problems. The people we all seek to protect deserve nothing less.

Thank you.