In Rejecting NHTSA Rule, Graham Shows True Colors

If one of your tires is under-inflated, you may be in trouble. You are more likely to lose control of your vehicle. Your ability to steer and stop will be diminished. And it’s possible, especially if you drive an SUV, that your vehicle could roll over. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that hundreds of people die each year as a result of under-inflated tires. Yet if your car is like most, you won’t be alerted if you are in danger -- as you would if you are low on oil or your engine is over-heating. Earlier this year, NHTSA was set to address this problem through regulation, as directed by Congress, requiring a pressure sensor in each tire that could alert the driver of an under-inflated tire through a dashboard monitor. But on Feb. 12, after several meetings with auto manufacturers who opposed the standard, John Graham, administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) , told NHTSA to go back to the drawing board, highlighting his anti-regulatory bias in the process. Bicycle Helmets vs. Clean Air John Graham, administrator of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has a long history of posing unnecessary tradeoffs, pitting one health or safety measure against another, to justify regulatory inaction. From 1993 to 1996, for instance, Graham testified on a number of occasions against environmental regulation, often mentioning protections such as bicycle helmets and immunizations as a better use of money than safeguards against air or water pollution, as Public Citizen points out in its report, "Safeguards At Risk: John Graham and Corporate America’s Back Door to the Bush White House." However, for all of Graham's apparent concern about making sure children are wearing bicycle helmets, he didn't participate in any of the debates on the 1993 Child Safety Protection Act (CSPA), a section of which was called the Children's Bicycle Helmet Safety Act. Not only did Graham not get involved in promoting the law, he apparently did not realize that President Clinton signed the CSPA into law in June of 1994, because in September of 1994, Graham was quoted in Time Magazine saying, "Phantom risks and real risks compete not only for our resources but also for our attention . . .It's a shame when a mother worries about toxic chemicals, and yet her kids are running around unvaccinated and without bicycle helmets." Amazingly, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (HCRA), where Graham used to serve as director, calculated the odds of dying in a bicycle accident as quite minuscule at 1 in 369,881; meanwhile, the odds of dying of cancer are put at 1 in 519 and the odds of dying of heart disease are 1 in 385. The bottom line is that Graham is not really worried about bicycle helmets; he is merely posing a risk tradeoff -- one that doesn't really exist -- to make people think twice about regulating things like air and water pollution and pesticide in fruit. Why not keep the bicycle helmet laws and protect children from the known damaging effects of pollution and pesticides? In rejecting NHTSA’s standard, Graham -- whose office must grant clearance to agency regulatory proposals -- argued that NHTSA should instead allow a cheaper “indirect” system, favored by automobile manufacturers, which works with anti-lock brakes to measure the rotational difference between the tires, determining whether the speed is slower for one tire compared to the others -- despite the fact that Graham fully acknowledges that the “direct” system proposed by NHTSA works better. At a Feb. 28 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Graham and NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge reported they had reached a compromise (which, oddly, still hasn’t been submitted to OIRA for approval): NHTSA will allow both direct and indirect systems for several years as they further study whether to require the safer direct system -- a verdict that has many NHTSA employees privately fuming and Public Citizen gearing up for litigation. Yet it remains unclear what’s left to study. Already, NHTSA has definitively demonstrated that direct systems are more effective. An indirect system would not inform the driver which tire is under-inflated, as a direct system would, nor would it be as reliable. As Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) points out, a car’s tires lose inflation naturally over the course of time, and generally do so at the same rate. As stated above, an indirect system measures the rotational difference in a car’s tires; if one tire is under-inflated, for example, it will rotate at a faster speed (because of its smaller diameter) than the other tires, and the driver would be alerted. Yet if tires lose air at the same rate, as is the more likely scenario, there would be no rotational difference, meaning they could become dangerously under-inflated without being detected. Not surprisingly, NHTSA found that requiring a direct system would achieve more safety benefits than an indirect system. Specifically, NHTSA estimated that direct systems would avert 10,271 injuries and 141 fatalities a year, while indirect systems would avert 5,000 injuries and 70 fatalities, according to OIRA’s estimates. Nonetheless, Graham argues that allowing an indirect system would actually be safer overall than a direct system because it would serve as an incentive for manufacturers to install anti-lock brakes, which are necessary for an indirect system to work. Pointing to a recent study by Charles Farmer of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Graham concluded that the resulting increase in anti-lock brakes would save 118 to 266 lives a year, on top of the 70 fatalities averted from indirect systems. According to Graham, this “yields a total of 188 - 336 fatalities averted or between 47 and 195 more than with direct systems.” Yet Graham appears to be overly enthusiastic in his appraisal of anti-lock brakes based on the available evidence. Most notably, Farmer met with NHTSA on March 23 to discuss his study -- which Graham calls the “best estimate” available -- and according to the meeting log filed by NHTSA, “Mr. Farmer thought that Dr. Graham of OMB was being optimistic in assuming that antilock brakes would produce fatality benefits.” That’s any fatality benefits at all! Indeed, as Public Citizen points out, Farmer’s study could actually be used to make a case against the need for anti-lock brakes. Summarizing the study, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (Farmer’s employer) concluded, “… the real-world advantages of antilock brakes are unproven. Over the long term, vehicles with such brakes have fared no better in overall fatal crash experience than vehicles without antilocks.” This is hardly the first time Graham has implausibly interpreted evidence to fit his preconceived point of view against regulation. While serving on EPA’s Science Advisory Board in November 2000, for instance, Graham cited two outlying studies to claim -- contrary to the overwhelming body of evidence -- that low levels of dioxin can actually protect against cancer, that in fact it may be an “anti-carcinogen,” as Public Citizen details in this report. Graham pressed EPA to include this as a finding in its formal assessment of dioxin -- which could have precluded regulation -- but fortunately he was overruled. Instead, EPA’s draft assessment (a final assessment has been held up under the Bush administration) linked dioxin, even at low levels, to cancer, infertility, immune system damage, and learning disabilities. This is not to say that anti-lock brakes are without safety advantages (although based on the available evidence, this case can certainly be made). Consumers Union, for example, has found that anti-lock brakes can help a vehicle stop shorter, stay straight -- even when braking in the rain, snow or ice -- and retain steering control while braking. Perhaps this should be the subject of further research and potentially a rulemaking to require anti-lock brakes. Yet the potential need for anti-lock brakes should not preclude a safe, workable system to measure under-inflated tires, which after all was mandated by Congress. Indeed, Congress expressed no concern at all over anti-lock brakes when, following the Firestone tire debacle in 2000, it sought to address tire pressure monitoring as part of the TREAD Act, a highly ambitious law that called for comprehensive action to improve tire safety. Specifically, Congress directed NHTSA to issue a new regulation within one year that would establish “a warning system in new motor vehicles to indicate to the operator when a tire is significantly under inflated” -- a requirement prompted by findings that under-inflated tires potentially contributed to the failure of Firestone tires, which resulted in 271 deaths. Graham, however, clearly has other concerns besides the will of Congress; as a result of his action, NHTSA’s standard is now months overdue. Instead, cost considerations are paramount. NHTSA estimated that requiring direct systems would cost about $66 per vehicle, or about $1.24 billion in total “net costs” after factoring in cost savings in fuel costs and tire wear expected from the standard. The less protective indirect systems, according to OIRA estimates, would cost about $13 for vehicles that already have anti-lock brakes -- about 68 percent of cars and light trucks -- for total net costs of $726 million. Yet Graham again seems to be optimistic in assuming that allowing indirect systems would serve as much of an incentive for installing anti-lock brakes. Anti-lock braking systems cost about $240 per vehicle, according to NHTSA. For vehicles that currently lack anti-lock brakes, it would still be far cheaper for a manufacturer to use a direct system at $66 per vehicle to comply with the standard, which Graham would allow, than an indirect system at $253 per vehicle (the total cost of installing anti-locks and an indirect system). What could happen, then, is that most vehicles using anti-lock brakes would employ the less safe, less reliable indirect system, while most vehicles without anti-lock brakes would simply opt for the cheaper (for them) direct system. Graham estimates, with virtually no supporting data, that allowing an indirect system would result in a 7.4 percent increase in the use of anti-lock brakes. Yet if such an increase fails to materialize, the fatality benefits assumed by Graham -- which, as discussed above, are optimistic in their own right -- would not be achieved. The only way to ensure greater use of anti-lock brakes is to require them directly, rather than hoping for them as an indirect benefit of a standard meant to address an entirely separate issue. As stated earlier, the issue of anti-lock brakes should be looked at, and if the fatality benefits are in fact as great as Graham claims (no sure thing), we’d be crazy not to require them. But alas, this concern is really just a diversion tactic, meant to distract from the bottom-line action: Graham has rejected the safest possible standard as a result of cost objections from the auto industry, which incidentally has contributed generously over the years to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, where Graham served as director prior to his confirmation as OIRA administrator. Indeed, Graham’s return letter specifically directs NHTSA to conduct further analysis around the standard’s “cost-effectiveness.” For instance, Graham questions NHTSA’s finding that 95 percent of all vehicle owners would respond to a warning light about their tire pressure (a smaller percentage would reduce estimated benefits and cost-effectiveness), and asks for further analysis. Such a request threatens paralysis by analysis, which Congress clearly sought to avoid with its short statutory deadline, and raises the question when enough is enough -- especially when it’s already been established that a direct system works better. Besides, why should your safety as a driver be affected by the likelihood of whether someone else chooses to respond to their warning light? Nonetheless, by invoking anti-lock brakes, Graham gives the appearance of being chiefly driven by safety concerns -- although it should be remembered, this concern is expressed in the context of rejecting a safety standard. This is reminiscent of Graham’s opposition to EPA’s 1997 regulation to prevent against smog, or ozone pollution, which he argued would actually increase the rate of skin cancer by clearing the way for harmful ultraviolet rays, offsetting the agency’s estimated benefits. As with the tire pressure monitoring case, Graham did not attack the standard directly, as an industry lobbyist would, nor did he focus on costs alone. Instead, he cast himself as an advocate for greater public health even while opposing the regulation; ironically, when Graham expresses concern over health or safety, this is usually bad news. In playing this role, Graham frequently pits one possible health or safety measure (in this case, anti-lock brakes) against another (tire-pressure monitoring), forcing an unnecessary tradeoff to justify inaction, which has long been his hallmark (see box above). If we want anti-lock brakes, there’s nothing to stop us from making them a requirement -- and certainly, it should not get in the way of protecting against under-inflated tires. We can do both. Graham’s return letter should be recognized for what it is: an excuse.
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