Poor Road Safety Standards from the USDOT and NHTSA


The USDOT is the government body that oversees precisely what its title states, but in the context of road transportation it has three agencies dealing with specific aspects, and from the perspective of safety, all three have flaws or areas in which they do not achieve what they could.

The agencies are:

  • NHTSA — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (responsible for vehicles and road users);
  • FHWA — The Federal Highway Administration (responsible for the roads);
  • FMCSA — The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (responsible for commercial drivers and some aspects regarding commercial vehicles).

On the whole, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does a good job but some aspects leave a lot to be desired. One of these is their frequent use of photographs on social media pages which are clearly intended to illustrate safe driving yet all too often fall short or even show unsafe activity.

This image, which NHTSA published on Facebook on September 21, 2018, shows a happy young driver with his seat belt adjusted far too high (which could result in additional injuries in a crash), his head restraint set too low (which could cause neck injuries if rear-ended), and him holding the wheel poorly (which could reduce control and also cause serious arm & facial injuries if the air bag were to be triggered).

None of these risks was even mentioned by NHTSA, whose staff clearly failed to notice them in the photograph. How could such basic failings not be seen by individuals the American people trust to be experts? Do interns do these tasks without supervision, perhaps?

Another very unsuitable photo, that was published by NHTSA on November 13, 2018, shows the driver’s head restraint set too low for best safety, bad steering technique (an arm on the window ledge, which can hamper swift or accurate response to an urgent incident, and infers that it is acceptable for a driver to look at a passenger while driving. These may look trivial but two can be a factor in the cause of a crash, and the low head restraint can make neck injuries worse or even contribute to paralysis.

The use of inappropriate photographs happens so frequently at NHTSA that it is very obvious that images are being sourced or perhaps even commissioned by staff who certainly give the impression that they have not received adequate training as to what constitutes good, safe driving. So why are they allowed to be in charge of posting potentially harmful images?

At Road Safety USA (and previously, at Drive and Stay Alive), we have lost count of how many times we have commented to NHTSA about the ‘unsafe photographs’ issue but we have never even once received any acknowledgement of our comments, let alone seen any improvement in the use of appropriate images. We get the impression that a mere commercial photo library is being used as a source and that no relevant care whatsoever is taken in the selection of images.

Another area of concern is that of giving unsafe guidelines when clearly the goal should be to give the safest possible advice. A classic example of this is the fact that NHTSA repeatedly, and despite our frequent protests, tells people to ‘slow down and move over’ for emergency vehicles. but that action, on occasion, can severely increase danger and it is very significantly safer to advise people to ‘move over OR slow down.’

On the other side of the issue, and in NHTSA’s defense, it has to be said that their cause is undoubtedly harmed by the regular procession of political appointees who are put in charge. Such a process beggars belief. We know excellent people who work or have worked at NHTSA, and from many conversations I have long since come to the conclusion that their own top people, with decades of expertise, are the ones who should be put in charge of such a critically important task, not career people who often have absurdly inadequate knowledge and in any event are just zooming on by, in pursuit of their own careers.


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