Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Laura Walker graduated college with a BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science. She married her husband and began working in the family insurance business in 2005. She became a licensed agent and wrote P&C business focusing on personal lines insurance. Laura serviced existing business and wrote new business. She now uses her insurance background to help educate drivers about...

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Reviewed by Laura Walker
Licensed Agent for 10 Years

UPDATED: Jul 30, 2019

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is part of the Department of Transportation of the United States. Often shortened to “NHTSA”, the agency’s mission is to prevent injuries and save lives by reducing vehicle-related crashes.

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One of the things that NHTSA does is to write the standards for safety in vehicles, including air bags, safety restraints, and child restraints. The agency examines air bags for safe deployment, writes safety guidelines for manufacturers, and helps the public understand safety features.

The NHTSA web site even has interactive videos that allow parents to decide which child restraints are appropriate for their child’s age.

NHTSA also works with manufacturers to develop and approve anti-theft devices. While this is not directly related to vehicle safety, many car thefts also involve wrecks from high-speed chases or violent carjackings, so anti-theft measures may actually help save lives in the long run.

NHTSA and Fuel Economy

One of the most familiar jobs of NHTSA is to rate vehicles for fuel economy. All new cars have a sticker with this information on the window, and the information is also available for used cars on the web. NHTSA uses the CAFE system (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) to rate vehicles.

This job has become even more important in recent years, as legislation has been proposed to measure the “footprint” of each vehicle produced and regulate those that exceed the standards.

In simple terms, cars and trucks that use a disproportionate amount of fuel are under fire, and NHTSA will be tasked with working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate the CAFE standards for vehicles.

Right now, European cars average 45 miles per gallon (mpg), while American cars average only 25 mpg. Congress wants to work to close that gap.

However, the NHTSA has a dilemma in this mission. While greater fuel economy is desirable, NHTSA worries about the safety of smaller, lighter vehicles involved in a crash. Statistically, more deaths happen in small vehicles made of lighter materials, as they simply do not provide the protection of heavier, larger vehicles.

Because of this, the agency works hard with manufacturers to increase safety standards for light trucks and vehicles, hoping to reach a happy medium between safety, fuel economy, and environmental impact.

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What is the New Car Assessment Program?

The New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) is one way the agencies tests the safety of new vehicles. The agency has scientists who study car safety by “crash testing” cars with frontal or side-impact controlled crashes.

This gives the scientists the data needed to give a “safety rating” of up to “5 stars,” so that consumers know which cars are most likely to protect them in a crash.

The NHTSA has the power to impose severe sanctions on manufacturers who do not comply with its safety and fuel economy standards. Currently, NHTSA can charge $5.50 per 0.1 mpg a car falls under the standard fuel economy rate, multiplied by the manufacturer’s total production.

This can mean levying significant fines on manufacturers who willingly produce inefficient vehicles. Of course, as long as there is a demand for those vehicles, they will continue to sell, with the increased price passed along to the consumer.

While NHTSA has steadily increased the fuel economy standard, it does not seem to have much impact on fuel prices, which are controlled by other factors, including supply and demand.

Inflation also plays a role in the price of fuel. NHTSA’s goal is not to influence fuel prices, but many hope that with the organization insisting on more fuel-efficient vehicles, the price of fuel will eventually modulate as demand levels.

What other information does the NHTSA collect?

NHTSA is also responsible for maintaining the databases of information on traffic accidents and fatalities. The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) is available for research on traffic deaths, with researchers from all over the globe accessing this system for information.

FARS collects many different types of information on traffic fatalities, including the types of vehicles involved, driver demographics, and conditions of the crash. This information is useful to determine age groups most likely to be involved in accidents and other conclusions.

NHTSA sometimes investigates certain car manufacturers for violations of its safety standards, and may require manufacturers to issue a recall of a vehicle if it is determined that the vehicle is unsafe.

Since so many cars sold in the United States today are manufactured by overseas companies, NHTSA must work with several different governments to enforce safety standards.

Because so many foreign cars are sold in the United States, many international manufacturers have no problem complying with the safety standards imposed.

NHTSA has an annual budget of $815 million. Of this money, 78 percent is spent on driver safety, and 22 percent on vehicle safety, with a very small percentage of the budget (about $2 million) spent on fuel economy standards.

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