Analysis by Daniel Stern, DVN Chief Editor
It’s been more than a decade since the ADB discussion with NHTSA began, and at this point anyone seeing a light at the end of the tunnel would be on solid ground dismissing it as a hallucination (and if there really is a light at the end of that tunnel, the odds are strong that it’s not an adaptive one). In the lighting community, going from optimism to patience…to impatience…to dismay…to anger…to disillusionment…to weary resignation has been much like working through the stages of grief.
In my keynote at the DVN Workshop near Detroit in September, I made the case that NHTSA’s apparent inability to get anything done is not because of a lack of expertise, skill, or will. It is because over half a century ago when traffic safety was a new topic, the auto industry—by which I mean its uppermost executives—having tried and failed to scuttle the very idea of vehicle regulations, set about accomplishing that goal another way: they tied NHTSA’s shoelaces together. They got laws and processes adjusted so issuing and strengthening regulations would always be a slow, difficult, expensive process. It’s called regulatory capture: the regulated party effectively takes control of their nominally-overseeing agency. This control can be active, with industry operatives writing the regulations themselves, and it can also be passive, with the agency hamstrung and hobbled and unable to get much done.
Lighting, like crash-avoidance more generally, presents special regulatory challenges because the costs of an avoided crash can’t be tabulated. They can be estimated and modelled, of course, but one of NHTSA’s shackles is the requirement—imposed in a coöperative effort between an anti-regulatory American presidential administration and opportunistic auto industry executives—that every regulatory mandate be justified by stringent cost-benefit analysis, with risk assessment not allowed to substitute for actual costs. A crash that doesn’t happen exerts zero costs, and dividing by zero is a mathematical impossibility, so most lighting-related regulatory upgrades are dead before they even hatch. NHTSA’s engineers and officers are well aware of this, and it puts a strong thumb on the scales in the direction of why even bother?.
We’ve previously mused on an idea for how this particular logjam might be cleared, and there are surely other ideas, as well. Could any of them actually do the trick? Maybe or not. But now comes this from the Associated Press: NHTSA is late on at least thirteen auto safety standards, most of them having nothing whatever to do with lighting. That, along with the regulatory-timeframe trend presented in the first link at the beginning of this paragraph, clearly indicates the issue is much broader and deeper than just an aversion to lighting regulations. It starkly shows that sending in petitions and responding to requests for comment offers, at best, the chance to participate in creating an illusion. Much more comprehensive action than that is what got us where we are today; ergo, much more comprehensive action will be required to get us into a better situation.
What does that look like? On an individual level, it means everyone who can—every American—ought to write to their members of congress and squawk about this. Speak up! Not just about ADB or any of the other particular regulations in purgatory, but about the purgatory that NHTSA has become for any and all regulations. Of course, many of us are constrained in what we can say on even implicit behalf of our employer, but every American has the right to write as a private citizen.
On an industry level, it means a careful re-think is needed of how to interact with government. It’s easy to default to resisting regulation on general principle. That leads to what we have now, and it smothers and strangles innovation. Now more than ever, innovation is the primary main driving force of the auto industry, and that means the industry has a vested interest—if only they’ll recognise and leverage it—in favouring good, thoughtful regulation.
The regulatory panel discussions are consistently among the most popular features of DVN Workshops. Good ideas and productive intent flow from these sessions. But working out the details of how best to align, harmonise, and synchronise the rules on the American regulatory island with those of the rest of the world—while important—will come to no practical effect if we cannot break the bigger logjam. It is the badly outdated product of a bygone era of safety ignorance, and it must be given a heave-ho and relegated to the scrapheap, where it belongs with the rest of the obsolete practices of the bad old days.