blank.gif (51 bytes) Features
The Federal Agency
of Speeding Myth

by Chad Dornsife

hose Flat Earthers really missed a bet. If they’d just had the foresight a few decades back to wangle a few federal millions to subsidize their cause, today there’d be a massive federal bureaucracy devoted to flat-earth propaganda. The truths of flat-earthism would now be self-evident to all of us, and the eyes of Tom and Dan and Peter would twinkle from the tube each night with amusement at benighted red-necks who persisted in doubting the flat-earth gospel. Senators and congressmen, mayors and governors and corporate CEOs throughout the land would hustle and lobby every day to lower their hooks into the by-now-mammoth pork barrel at the National Flat Earth Safety Administration in Washington. And Bill Clinton on the radio each Saturday would plump for new national programs to keep The Children from falling off the (gulp) Edge of the World.

What brings these musings to mind? The central role the U.S. government has played during the last quarter-century in undermining American traffic safety. The fact is, we now have the equivalent of the federal flat-earth situation described above—except that the billions of federal dollars are going into propaganda for programs that fly in the face of sound science and make our roads and highways more dangerous than they need be.

What happened was a classic Nanny-State phenomenon: Officious members of Congress thought citizens needed more hectoring about traffic safety, so they added propaganda functions to the mission of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). With the advent of the Arab oil boycott in the mid-1970s, NHTSA gained additional funds and clout as an agency able to deploy "safety" rationalizations in support of politicians’ push for fuel conservation. Professional organizations like the Institute of Traffic Engineering had already shown that the new national 55 mph speed limit would not in itself affect either accident rates or traffic speeds, and NHTSA’s original parent agency, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), was similarly on record. Nevertheless, offered bigger budgets and a larger bureaucratic empire, NHTSA hitched its wagon to the coercive new national program.

Thus accelerated the wholesale transformation of NHTSA into a pure political propaganda agency—always willing to wink at sound science whenever a lucrative political constituency showed up and wanted to be served. At the same time, a split personality was institutionalized for the U.S. Department of Transportation—science-loyal traffic engineers in the FHWA vs. NHTSA’s ambitious and cynical bureaucrats.

Today, the overwhelming bulk of NHTSA’s funding is spent on programs that do not increase highway safety. Instead, the agency has become a classic Washington bureaucratic horror story, actively working to the detriment of the public in order to serve only itself and its special-interest constituency.

That constituency is two-fold: The traditional place-holders at the federal contract mega-trough, and the modern multi-billion-dollar traffic citation industry and its beneficiaries—all the local government jurisdictions, courts, bureaucracies and highway patrol organizations that prey on drivers by "enforcing" speed limits imposed in defiance of sound traffic engineering principles. Some car insurance conglomerates are players in the game, too. They like the speeding-ticket shakedown because it allows them to raise rates on ticketed policy holders even though most open-highway driving over the posted speed limit does not translate into any additional risk for the insured or the insurers.

NHTSA is key to the whole scam. The agency provides the credible-sounding misinformation upon which the fleecing of American drivers depends. While true highway safety engineering needs go unfunded, NHTSA spends hundreds of millions of federal dollars—one-third of a billion just in 1998—to create and disseminate venally motivated urban safety myths. Accepted uncritically by a trusting public and busy members of Congress, these myths insure that drivers and legislators remain unwitting cash cows for the citation industry to endlessly milk.

A good example of the myths NHTSA works hard to spread—embodying them in torrents of press releases salted with misleading and even false information—is the anti-speed campaign launched earlier this decade when Congress was considering repeal of the national 55 mph speed limit it and Richard Nixon had imposed in a panicky 1974.

Waving the Black Crepe

s nationally syndicated automotive writer Eric Peters observed last December in the Washington Times, NHTSA had "predicted—with great relish—that an additional 6,400 motorists deaths would occur annually as a result of rising speed limits." Yet this was total propaganda, and the entire national traffic engineering community knew it. Decades of solid, peer-reviewed studies on speed’s relationship to safety have demonstrated time and again that speed limits set closer to traffic’s natural rate of flow are significantly safer than those that attempt to impede that rate of flow [See "Does Nevada Really Need a Highway Patrol?", February, 1999 Nevada Journal].

To take a famous example, consider the West German superhighways, the autobahnen, where drivers are subject to no speed limit. In the most recently reported period, 1997, the fatality rate was only 0.74 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles driven. Contrast that with Nevada which—thanks to political lobbying by state highway patrol officers—has the dubious benefit of a 75 mph state speed limit, and fatalities are 400 percent higher. Nevada’s rate during 1997 was three deaths per 100 million vehicle miles.

Thus, notwithstanding the NHTSA propaganda, it wasn’t really surprising what occurred nationally when the federal 55 mph limit was repealed. "Fatality and accident rates have actually declined since repeal of the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit (NMSL)," the Peters article noted, "with the most recent data revealing 1997 as the year with the lowest traffic death rate in the nation’s history." [Emphasis added.] Dumbfounding NHTSA bureaucrats, science as a guide to events had once again proven far superior to agency dissimulation.

Fighting the Light

his instance of NHTSA disinformation was par for the agency’s course. It has long used its powers to undermine sound engineering practices that actually do reduce accident rates. When studies commissioned by the Federal Highway Administration in 1984 refuted FHTSA’s central hoax—equating a simple increase in highway speed with an increase in accidents—FHTSA blocked publication of the completed studies for five years, from 1992 to 1997, withholding them from Congress until long after the national speed limit had been repealed [See picture, this page]. To those of us who personally knew FHWA staff members and had already been passed copies of these very same studies, this was fascinating. We already had seen NHTSA turn deception of the American people into an art form, and now the agency bureaucrats, in their own self-interest, were also arrogantly perpetrating lies on their congressional sponsors.

The reason, of course, was that the linchpin upon which their entire bureaucratic empire appeared to depend seemed about to come loose. And finally, in 1995, it did. The s-word—safety—that had been magic for 20 years suddenly was not. The new 104th Congress no longer was inclined to curtsey and genuflect. Wonder of wonders, they actually listened to expert testimony from traffic engineers and repealed the national 55 mph absurdity.

Of course no bureaucratic agency ever goes quietly into the night, and NHTSA, backed by its extremely powerful political constituency and the Clinton administration, has held on and even prospered. One trick used by NHTSA and other U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) agencies has been to use tax money to fund their lobbying of state legislatures around the country in behalf of NHTSA’s citation-industry clients. The latter in turn would then, from the "grassroots," contribute to and campaign for members of the U.S. Congress and Senate willing to play along with the bureaucratic overlords in NHTSA and similar federal agencies.

Tired of this, in 1998 Congress amended the U.S. Code to say: "No funds appropriated to the [DOT] Secretary shall be available for any activity specifically designed to urge a state or local legislator to favor or oppose the adoption of any specific legislative proposal pending before any state or local legislative body." And while the DOT’s Inspector General recently showed that department officials illegally continue these practices (which are never referred to the Justice Department for prosecution), NHTSA administrators now find it safer to orchestrate the process in the states from afar, through the use of proxies.

Those proxies are the state and local agencies here in Nevada and across the country that are addicted to the income and other benefits available from the citation business. In Washington, NHTSA uses its massive budget to fund and develop nationwide advertising campaigns designed in part to reinforce public misunderstanding of the relationship of speed and safety. Channeling federal funds into high-powered private advertising agencies (often incestuously staffed by revolving-door former NHTSA officials), the agency then takes the resulting propaganda product, and turns it into massive quantities of expensive printed and other media materials. Those materials are then supplied to police and other agencies in the states to put into the hands of those states’ lawmakers.

But not only do state agencies get pre-printed media materials from NHTSA with which to woo legislators and the public to their cause, they are also provided with pre-fabricated lobbying campaigns, complete with step-by-step instructions.

For program after program now, highway patrol and police agencies go to their state lawmakers using the same tactics: "If you pass this legislation, you will get $X in federal funding." Often the proposed legislation would make the state eligible for federal funds underwriting cool toys for the agencies—vehicles, enforcement radar, etc.

But perhaps the most potent way that NHTSA has been able to reach into the states and turn highway patrol organizations into willing agents of federal initiatives has been federal overtime pay. Nevada Highway Patrol troopers who go out on the highways to participate in NHTSA’s and other federally subsidized "safety" programs can increase their take-home pay by thousands of dollars a year. Is it so surprising, then, that the NHP has become an active proponent of NHTSA’s specious safety doctrines—to the detriment of Nevada citizens?

We’ll talk more about that in the final installment of this series, next month. NJ

Chad Dornsife  is an activist on highway safety issues. He lives in Zephyr Cove.


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