NHTSA Faces Lawsuit Over Automatic Emergency Braking Petition

Consumer advocate groups have filed a lawsuit against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), indicating that the agency has failed to respond to a petition calling for mandatory automatic braking systems and other safety measures to become standard safety equipment in all U.S. vehicles. 

The Center for Auto Safety, and Consumer Watchdog, together with former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook, filed a complaint (PDF) in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on November 23, 2016, naming the NHTSA and its current administrator, Mark R. Rosekind, as defendants. The lawsuit claims the defendants violated federal law by failing to respond to a petition within 120 days, which requested the NHTSA to use its statutory authority to mandate Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) systems be required as standard equipment in all new vehicles.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs filed a petition (PDF) with the NHTSA on January 13, calling for it to enact a safety regulation requiring all light vehicles manufacturers to incorporate Forward Collision Warning, Crash Imminent Braking, and Dynamic Brake Support systems; known collectively as AEB.

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Several studies have been identified which the plaintiffs say establish that AEB technology is extremely beneficial, including one study published by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) that indicated automatic emergency braking technology could reduce insurance injury claims by as much as 35% by compensating for distracted driving mistakes that have been attributed to a majority of roadway crashes. The petition also noted that NHTSA data indicated the adoption of AEB technology in vehicles could prevent or limit the injuries and property damage from an estimated 910,000 automobile crashes every year.

The plaintiffs maintain that the NHTSA violated federal law by failing to respond to the petition within the required 120-day period, and unreasonably withheld implementation of AEB technologies as standard equipment for all light weight vehicles. The lawsuit claims the NHTSA averted proposing a mandatory rule for AEB technology and instead issued voluntary guidelines to automakers.

Despite a March 2016 agreement the NHTSA reached with 20 automakers, making up over 90% of the United States automobile industry, which voluntarily committed to follow a safety guideline over the next 10 years that will implement AEB as a standard feature in all lightweight vehicles, the consumer advocacy organizations believe the commitment was weak and that the NHTSA should have done better.

According to Claybrook, the voluntary standards promised to be followed by the automakers will not work. Claybrook proclaimed that AEB systems are one of the most important lifesaving automotive systems available in today’s automobile industry and by not implementing statutory guideline automakers will continue to produce weaker and cheaper versions of the safety software.

The NHTSA has made other less demanding efforts to encourage automakers to incorporate AEB technologies, such as the agency’s issuance of federal register notice in November 2015, indicating that the agency will be upgrading its 5-Star Rating System to include AEB as a recommended safety technology by 2018.

The NHTSA has also made an impact on other desirable safety awards including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) award. As part of the NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program released in January 2016, the agency and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety planned to set specific performance criteria for manufacturers to meet to be eligible for the desirable “IIHS Top Safety Pick” award which included vehicles must have AEB systems.

The plaintiff consumer advocacy groups claim the NHTSA and Mark Rosekind’s failure to initiate a rulemaking to require AEB systems to be installed in all light weight vehicles is unreasonable and a response to the petition is required under statutory deadlines given the nature of public interest.

The lawsuit states that the NHTSA must reply to the petition filed by plaintiffs within 30 days, and issue a decision on the promulgation of a new proposed rule-making.


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