The Road to Transportation Justice: Reframing Auto Safety in the SUV Age
36 Pages Posted: 17 May 2021 Last revised: 4 Apr 2022
Date Written: May 13, 2021
For the past 50 years, a singular focus on consumer protection has persistently prevented auto-safety regulators from addressing serious external hazards created by dangerous automobile designs.
Traffic violence is the second leading cause of death by injury in the United States. Beyond physical injury, traffic violence limits mobility and sends a powerful message about who does and does not belong on our streets. This toll is not unleashed at random; SUVs and pickups represent a disproportionate danger to other road users, particularly pedestrians and drivers of ordinary passenger cars. What’s more, the resulting traffic violence disproportionately burdens women, people of color, and low-income people. The result is a mounting crisis that threatens the safety and equity of our transportation system.
Despite mounting criticism, federal auto-safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have yet to meaningfully respond to this crisis. The roots of this failure are deep. This Comment establishes for the first time that federal regulators have known since the mid-1970s the exact design risks of SUVs and pickups that created our current crisis. From its inception until the mid-1990s, NHTSA repeatedly attempted to issue regulations that could have addressed the enormous risks that SUVs and pickup trucks pose to other road users – but never succeeded.
NHTSA’s historic and ongoing failure is a product of a fundamentally consumer-protectionist vision of road safety. Over the past fifty years, federal policymakers have centered the automobile purchaser as the appropriate beneficiary of auto-safety policy, regulating automobile safety primarily for the people inside them with little regard for equity or negative externalities for other road users.
Informed by this history, this Comment argues for a dramatic reframing of auto-safety policy away from consumer-protectionism and towards an equity-oriented, distributionally minded approach grounded in principles of transportation justice. This approach will finally align auto-safety scholarship and policy with trends in the distinct, but closely intertwined, field of transportation systems planning to advance a unified vision for road safety.
Keywords: transportation justice, administrative law, auto safety, NHTSA, Vision Zero, Pedestrian Safety, Consumer Protection, Consumerism
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