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Chief David Strickland Talks About NHTSA's Future Goals

Shortly after being appointed administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in January 2010, David Strickland was greeted with one of the highest-profile vehicle recalls in history. His organization’s response to the recall of nearly 6 million Toyota cars and trucks was criticized by some and lauded by others.

In the end, Strickland’s agency fined Toyota $16.4 million. With that recall behind him, spoke with Strickland about what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has accomplished in the wake of the Toyota case and what he hopes to achieve in 2011. Since being appointed, your office has been pushing car manufacturers to do more to address safety concerns. How is that effort going to improve vehicle safety, and what do you hope to accomplish along those lines in 2011?

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David Strickland: Since its inception, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has held automakers accountable for recalling vehicles and equipment that have a safety defect. We have one of the most effective defect programs in the world, and during my tenure we will continue to pursue recalls where our data justifies doing so. In addition, more and more recalls are being initiated by automakers, and we think this shows that manufacturers are taking their responsibility for safety seriously.

Safety is NHTSA’s top priority, and we’re committed to making vehicles even safer. This past year, the agency upgraded its five-star crash test ratings system, adding tougher tests, to challenge automakers to voluntary improve vehicles in order to obtain a coveted five-star rating.Under the new system, we’re also highlighting, for the first time, specific crash-avoidance technologies that we believe will save lives.Those include electronic stability control, forward-collision warning and lane-departure warning systems.

In 2011, we will focus on improving vehicle crashworthiness and occupant protection, as well as crash-avoidance systems and in-vehicle alcohol detection technologies. Our plans also include (rules) to improve rear visibility in vehicles and decrease the number of occupant ejections. In addition, we’re already working to fulfill the new Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, signed by President Obama to develop a standard that will be effective in addressing the issue of quiet cars and risks to pedestrians. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently levied some heavy fines against Toyota for its failure to report defects. Do you think these fines will send a message to other car companies that will make them think twice about not reporting such defects?

Strickland: By law, automakers are required to report any safety defects to NHTSA swiftly, and we expect them to do so.Our agency will continue to hold all automakers accountable for defects to protect consumers' safety. What other new initiatives are under way from your office to improve highway safety in 2011?

Strickland: In 2009, NHTSA recorded the lowest number of traffic fatalities and injuries in history. The record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities occurred even while estimated vehicle miles traveled in 2009 increased by 0.2 percent over 2008 levels.To keep the momentum going in 2011, we will continue to focus our attention on pressing safety issues such as distraction, seat belt use, use of child restraints, teen driving fatalities and pedestrian safety. With the help of our federal, state and local partners, we’ll continue to address these issues through research, enforcement and public awareness efforts.

We’re working with automakers, too. For example, NHTSA is working closely with automobile manufacturers to find ways to reduce drunk driving fatalities through the development of non-intrusive, inexpensive and reliable in-vehicle technology that can determine whether a driver is impaired. Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADDs) would prevent an impaired driver from operating a vehicle, once it has determined the driver is impaired.Laboratory development of DADDS and the verification of three prototypes are expected later this year. What is your greatest concern about highway safety today?

Strickland: A growing concern (Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood) and I both have are drivers being glued to their cell phones while driving behind the wheel.Driving requires a person’scomplete attention.If you’re too busy sending a text or talking on your cell phone, you can put yourself and other motorists in serious danger.

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Drunk driving is also a very serious issue I’m deeply concerned about, especially when it comes to repeat offenders. Drunk driving remains a leading cause of death and injury on our roadways. In fact, we released a survey last summer that found four out of five Americans identified drunk driving as a “major threat” to their own and their family’s safety.

We have enforcement campaigns and research under way aimed at combating both of these problems. What's been the greatest achievement so far of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during your tenure, and what's the top goal you'd like to accomplish before you leave office?

Strickland: Last year, we saw the lowest number of fatalities and injuries ever recorded. While I found this to be encouraging news, road fatality numbers -- however much they have declined -- are nothing to celebrate. My top goal is to continue to improve safety across the board -- from vehicle safety, to impaired driving, to seat belt use, to distracted driving, to child safety seats. Even though America's roads are the safest they've ever been, they must be safer. What should motorists know about highway safety that they may not be aware of?

Strickland: I think the most important thing motorists should know about highway safety is to remember not to be complacent.All motorists should drive attentively, wear seat belts, obey state laws and properly maintain their vehicles. Is distracted driving now on par with drunken driving as a safety issue?

Strickland: Both are preventable behaviors that result in thousands of deaths on our nation’s roadways a year.Drunk driving has been a problem we’ve been combating for many years, while distraction is an emerging problem we’re hoping to tackle early on.Either way, the bottom line is we need to drive responsibly, and that means putting your cell phone down and never driving drunk. What advice do you have for newly licensed drivers?

Strickland: Motor vehicle crashes have been the leading cause of death for teenagers for decades. The combination of inexperience and risky behavior can prove deadly for teenagers, especially at night, when the odds of being killed in a crash increases significantly. My advice to any new driver is to stay focused at the task of driving at all times. Never talk on your cell phone or text while driving. I also encourage new drivers to make sure you’re buckled up and never drive impaired. Have you ever been in a traffic accident? What was the experience like? How did you handle it?

Strickland: I was in a major car accident when I was 16 and, even though the crash wasn’t my fault, it was a chilling experience. Car crashes can happen anywhere, at anytime. I’m proud to say I was wearing my seat belt and I was not injured because I wore my belt. I cannot stress enough the importance of buckling up and driving attentively -- every trip, every time.

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