NHTSA is over five months late in meeting deadline to strengthen car seats

Over five months after telling Congress a proposed regulation to strengthen vehicle seats to make them safer would be published “in the coming months,” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has yet to meet a congressional deadline it missed last November. 

In the infrastructure law signed in November 2021, Congress gave the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the nation’s top auto safety regulator, two years to make vehicle seats stronger, following a multi-year CBS News investigation

“That is actually in the process of being developed. We don’t have any updates to share right now, but it is still being developed at NHTSA,” Sophie Shulman NHTSA deputy administrator, told CBS News’ Katie Krupnik at an event in Washington, Tuesday. “It’s something that we’re very focused on; it’s an incredibly important safety issue and something we’re very focused on getting done.”

The new proposed regulation remains in what’s known as the “pre-rule” stage, and it has been stalled there for over two years.

“For too long, families have had to worry about the safety of their most precious cargo in their vehicles: children in the back seat,” Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts told CBS News. “It has been more than two years since I secured a provision of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law requiring NHTSA to update the standard for seatback safety, yet we still haven’t seen action.” 

He called on NHTSA “to hit the gas and take life saving action now on seatback safety.” 

A CBS News investigation that began in 2015 exposed the fact that the 1967 strength standard leaves vehicle front seats susceptible to collapsing in rear-end crashes, putting children in the back seat at increased risk of injury or death. 

Safety advocates estimate at least 50 children die each year in crashes involving a seatback collapse. Crash test videos obtained during the course of CBS News’ investigation show how when cars are hit from behind, the front-seat driver and passenger seats of many vehicles can collapse backwards, launching the occupants into the backseat area.

NHTSA does not currently have a full-time congressionally confirmed administrator.

In January, Markey and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut, told CBS News the agency needed to act.

“I’m going to the president of the United States,” said Blumenthal, who also supports updating the seatback safety regulation. “And I’m going to say you don’t want this agency to be delaying and dallying when kids’ lives are at stake.”

Last November marked 13 years since 16-month old Taylor Warner, was killed when the family minivan was rear-ended while at a stop sign. The force of the crash caused her father Andy Warner’s seat to collapse backward, colliding with Taylor who was strapped in her car seat.

“I didn’t want my daughter to die in vain, and I’m going to go to the end of the earth to make sure that this is taken care of,” Andy Warner said.

He and his wife, Liz Warner, of Littleton, Colorado, advocate changing the seatback strength standard and hoped this year the new regulation would go into effect.

“As a mom, it just makes me angry,” Liz Warner said. “Every day, I put my kids in the car and I worry — to this day — ’cause you don’t know — it could happen again.”

Safety advocates, including the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., are also frustrated about the missed deadline.

“It shouldn’t require an act of Congress to get them to act on regulation. We shouldn’t have to wait for people to die to take action,” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy told CBS News. 

She pointed out there have been multiple recommendations made by the [National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), but “there hasn’t been action.” 

“That tells me you’re not serious about safety,” she said. “So, get serious.” 

While NHTSA is the nation’s top auto safety regulator, the NTSB is an independent federal agency focused on investigating civil transportation safety accidents and making recommendations to prevent future similar incidents.

Last November, 10 Democratic senators wrote to NHTSA seeking an update on the status of the 10 auto-safety improvements called for in the bill, including the seatback legislation.

NHTSA responded in a Dec. 22 letter to say it was “proceeding as expeditiously as possible to comply with the mandates and requirements of [the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law].” 

“NHTSA plans to publish an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) in the coming months … and expects to complete the rulemaking after careful consideration of public input throughout the rulemaking process.”

Markey and Blumenthal were joined in the letter by Democratic Sens. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, asked by CBS News in December what he would do about NHTSA’s failure to meet the congressional deadline, responded, “When it comes to safety, the one thing that matters more than doing something in time for a congressional deadline is doing it right.” 

He added, “NHTSA has to make tough choices every day, because literally everything they do involves life safety. They have limited resources to deal with dozens of overlapping requirements and mandates.”

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