NHTSA Issues Weakened Tire Pressure Monitoring Rule

On June 5, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a watered down standard to guard against under-inflated tires -- which are linked to numerous deaths each year -- after its first attempt was rejected by OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which must approve all major regulatory actions. The new final rule will allow manufacturers to choose between installing a “direct” system, which relies on a pressure sensor in each tire that could alert the driver of an under-inflated tire through a dashboard monitor, and a less reliable, yet cheaper, “indirect” system, 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. Over the next three years, NHTSA will continue to study and accept input on whether to require direct systems, as it originally proposed to do, with a final verdict to be announced by November 2006. Such a delay pushes back the date of full implementation should NHTSA ultimately decide in favor of direct systems, as there would undoubtedly be a phase-in period of at least several years -- potentially costing lives in the meantime. NHTSA’s original standard, rejected by OIRA, required direct tire pressure monitoring systems to be installed in all vehicles by 2007, which NHTSA estimated would avert 10,271 injuries and 141 fatalities a year. According to OIRA’s estimates, indirect systems would avert 5,000 injuries and 70 fatalities. Yet incredibly, OIRA Administrator John Graham argued in his return letter that a standard allowing indirect systems would actually produce greater safety benefits overall 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, as discussed in detail here. After Graham’s return letter, 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! In other words, the author of the study that formed the foundation of OIRA’s return letter explicitly rejected Graham’s conclusions, yet Graham chose to ignore this, insisting that NHTSA allow indirect systems anyway. This willful misinterpretation of the evidence seems to indicate that the concern over anti-lock brakes was 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.
back to Blog