On November 15, 2021, President Biden signed into law the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act” or “IIJA”). Vehicle, highway, and crash safety improvements were not a major part of the IIJA’s billing. Maybe the lack of publicity on this aspect of the IIJA was the result of the legislation’s overall vast scope. Whatever the reason, the IIJA actually affected (or at least required NHTSA to effect) a number of substantial and consequential vehicle safety initiatives.

It’s now just more than a year after the IIJA’s enactment, so I wanted to discuss the IIJA in the vehicle safety context in a two-part series. In the first part of this series, I discussed what the IIJA is—what did it do/require NHTSA to do? In the second part of this series, I’ll discuss what NHTSA has done to affect the IIJA mandates in the roughly 14 months since it was enacted.

50% NHTSA Budget Increase—What is NHTSA using this money for?

The IIJA increases NHTSA’s annual budget by 50% and represents a total funding increase of $7.7 billion from 2022 to 2026. By far the biggest financial commitment is in state grants—$3.9 billion from 2022 to 2026 for highway safety grants in areas ranging from speeding reduction to impaired driving prevention and tracking to increasing recall completion rates to crashworthiness to equity in traffic safety to child seat use education to first-responder safety.

NHTSA will also staff up. Its 2023 budget request proposal indicates NHTSA is using the additional funding to support 26 new enforcement operations positions. Their duties would include overseeing safety recalls for the Office of Defect Investigations. NHTSA will also be hiring an additional 22 staff members to implement Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and medium- and heavy-duty fuel efficiency standards.

NHTSA’s new budget states that the agency plans to “greatly expand[] and fast-track[] [its] work to ensure the safe development of Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) technologies and the safe deployment of Automated Driving Systems (ADS) technologies.” The new budget includes $469 million for vehicle safety and behavioral research programs to develop risky driving countermeasures.

One interesting initiative is NHTSA’s planned use of BIL funds to transform the Crash Investigation Sample System (CISS). NHTSA intends to more than double the number of CISS sites from the current 32 to 72. This program is to add more researchers to expand the scope of its data collection. It also intends to begin collecting enhanced data on pre-crash factors like distraction and the use of crash avoidance technologies (ADS, ADAS, etc.). IIJA funds will support a grant program for States to upgrade and standardize data collection and sharing with NHTSA and among the states.

Regulatory Activity and Rulemaking—What rulemaking action and other regulatory activity has NHTSA engaged in?

Since the IIJA’s passage, NHTSA issued a substantial Request for Comments seeking feedback on improving, updating, and harmonizing the Advanced Driver Assistance Systems portions of NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program. NHTSA also issued a rule on adaptive driving beam headlamps in February of 2022. This latter step checks off one of the IIJA’s requirements ahead of schedule.

By far the most newsworthy development on the IIJA rulemaking front came from the Senate, not NHTSA. Senators Markey, Blumenthal, and others sent Acting NHTSA Administrator Ann Carlson a letter on November 15, 2022. In it, the Senators asked for updates on NHTSA’s progress on various rulemakings and regulatory activities mandated by the IIJA and prior legislation. The Senators noted increasing crashes and crash-related injuries/fatalities since 2020. They specifically noted that 45% of fatal crashes now involve at least one of three high-risk behaviors: speeding, alcohol-impaired driving, and/or seatbelt non-use.

The Senators further noted that NHTSA “has already taken important steps forward, including proposing changes to its New Car Assessment Program and releasing crash data for autonomous and partially autonomous vehicles.” But they claimed NHTSA has failed to meet deadlines required by the IIJA and prior legislation:

… the [IIJA] directs NHTSA to release a report within six months explaining why the agency failed to meet the statutory deadline for those rules and providing their expected completion dates. Unfortunately, NHTSA has already missed that deadline by six months.

The Senators asked for an update on a number of IIJA mandates, including:

  • recall completion (IIJA Section 24202),
  • FMVSS 207/seatback safety (Sec. 24204),
  • automatic shutoff for CO poisoning protection (Sec. 24505),
  • crash avoidance (Sec. 24208),
  • reduction in driver distraction (Sec. 24209),
  • headlamps (Sec. 24212),
  • hood and bumper standards (Sec. 24214),
  • early warning reporting (Sec. 24216),
  • advanced impaired driving technology (Sec. 24220), and
  • child safety (sec. 24222).

The Senators asked NHTSA to respond in writing by December 15, 2022. It does not appear that NHTSA has publicly responded.

The Senate letter refers to an April 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office that found that NHTSA had completed just six of the 22 rulemakings required by the last two major transportation bills. Per the GAO, NHTSA “has not consistently followed leading project schedule management practices when developing mandated rulemakings and reports,” practices it said “can help manage project timeframes and reduce delays.”

In fairness, NHTSA has been without a permanent, president-appointed, Senate-confirmed Administrator for the better part of five years, spanning two presidents. After Administrator Rosekind resigned in 2017, no Trump appointee was confirmed. And Biden-appointee Steven Cliff served only three months before leaving to head the California Air Resources Board in August 2022.

Research/Study/Analysis—What studies, research, and other analyses has NHTSA undertaken, commissioned, or published?

Specific to research and analysis, NHTSA published a rollaway prevention study entitled Non-Traffic Surveillance: Fatality and Injury Statistics in Non-Traffic Crashes, 2016-2020 in September 2022. The study focuses on collecting and compiling rollaway incidents. This is important because (a) the IIJA ordered NHTSA to study rollaway prevention and (b) lack of information is often raised as a problem with rollaway incidents, which occur off of public roads, in driveways, and in parking lots.

It doesn’t appear that NHTSA has published any research on the other areas of study required by the IIJA: distracted driver monitoring systems, vulnerable road users protection, illegal school bus passings, limousine crashworthiness, cannabis-impaired driving, or child-seat accessibility for low-income families. This isn’t to say NHTSA hasn’t undertaken any of this. But nothing appears to have been made public yet.