Tag: auto safety

Goodbye, Secretary LaHood

Just 12 hours ago I expressed disappointment that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had expressed his intent of “sticking around for a while” as a cabinet member in President Obama’s second term. Now – I suppose it’s just coincidence – LaHood says he’s departing after all. Promoted as the Republican in the Obama cabinet (at least the one left after the departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates), the former Illinois Congressman has been a veritable fount of anti-libertarian proposals and regrettable policy decisions over the past four years: 

  • LaHood’s best-known crusade, against “distracted driving,” enthusiastically built on earlier Washington initiatives muscling into traffic laws formerly decided at the state and local level. While he did back off earlier press reports that had him favoring a national ban on cellphone use in cars, even handsfree, he promoted such wacky ideas as having cops peer down into cars from overpasses to see whether drivers are paying enough attention to the road, and mandating technologies that would automatically disconnect phones in moving cars (what could go wrong?).
  • Known while in Congress as friendly toward pork-barrel projects, LaHood provided a bipartisan gloss for his free-spending department: the Post recounts his efforts “helping implement billions of dollars in transportation projects from the 2009 economic stimulus bill and promoting the plan to wary Republicans.” Combining his two enthusiasms, LaHood pushed a program of local “nanny grants” that drew resistance from House Republicans.
  • After trial lawyers and feckless reporters ginned up an “unintended acceleration” scare against Toyota, LaHood wasn’t in a position to reverse the engineering judgment of the career technical staff at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), who concluded the scare (like earlier ones against Audi and other makes) was bogus. But he seems to have done what he could to make life hard for the foreign-owned automaker, levying heavy fines over disclosure issues and delaying the release of the technical findings exculpating the company. Some felt that as a high officer of a government that had taken over and was running competitors GM and Chrysler, LaHood was in a bit of a conflicted position as judge-and-sentencer of Detroit’s envied Japanese rival.
  • Early speculation on a replacement includes the name of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He’d probably leave me nostalgic for LaHood.

Event Data Recorders: They’re Not Just for Safety

In my recent testimony before the House Commerce Committee on a proposal to require event data recorders in all new cars sold in the United States, I pointed out that the mandate would go far beyond what is needed to ensure safety. Indeed, the cost of EDRs raises the prices of new cars, marginally reducing the pool of used cars and keeping lower income drivers in older used cars which are less safe.

The demand for EDRs in all cars, collecting and transmitting data about all crashes, suggests that something more than statistically relevant safety data is what advocates of this mandate want. I put a finer point on these issues today in answers to questions propounded to me after the hearing.

The proposed EDR mandate includes controls on the use of EDR information, a nominal protection for privacy, but the EDR mandate “sets the stage for migration away from consumer privacy toward serving the goals of government and industry related not only to safety but also to general law enforcement, taxation, and surveillance.”

Claybrook: All Your Data Are Belong to U.S.

I was pleased last week to testify in Congress about a draft bill that would mandate “event data recorders” in all new cars. Automobile black boxes or “EDRs” are an issue that found me a few years ago when I commented on their privacy consequences to a newspaper and heard from concerned drivers across the country.

My testimony to the House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection had three main themes:

1) The Constitution doesn’t give Congress authority to design automobiles or their safety features;

2) Only a relevant sample of crash data is needed to improve auto safety—overspending on a 100% EDR mandate will keep the poor in older, more dangerous cars and undermine auto safety for that cohort; and

3) The privacy protections in the bill help, but consumers should control the existence and functioning of EDRs in their cars.

A co-panelist taking a different view was Joan Claybrook, President Emeritus of Public Citizen and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In her testimony, Claybrook called for a near quadrupling of NHTSA’s budget to $500 million per year. She also called for the construction of what might be called “Total Auto Awareness” infrastructure.

“[T]he bill should require that the data collected by the EDR be automatically transmitted to a NHTSA database,” Claybrook wrote. She probably meant only crash data, and she paid lip service to privacy, but this represents a probable goal of the auto safety community. Our money, our cars, and our data are instruments for them to use in pursuit of their goals.

If this auto surveillance infrastructure is mandated, what EDRs collect, store, and transmit to government databases will grow over time.

They’re going to keep you alive, damnit, if it burns up all your freedom and autonomy to do it! It’s the beating heart count that matters, not the reasons for living.