WASHINGTON—Auto safety and consumer advocacy groups have sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a bid to force the agency to decide whether to require automatic braking systems on all new light vehicles.
The suit highlights growing frustration within the safety and consumer protection lobby over NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind's pursuit of voluntary safety agreements outside of normal rulemaking channels. The safety advocates say such deals lack the force of law and are negotiated behind closed doors without the transparency of a formal regulatory process.
Automakers representing nearly all new light-vehicle sales in the U.S. agreed last March to make automatic emergency braking standard on all new cars by 2022 under a deal brokered by NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The pact has since been criticized by safety advocates as being toothless and without recourse if an automaker chooses to renege on the deal in the future.
Consumer Watchdog, Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety formally petitioned NHTSA to mandate automatic braking last January. The agency has yet to decide whether to approve or deny the petition, despite a legal requirement that it rule within 120 days, according to the advocacy groups. The suit by the trio was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Washington, and seeks a court order requiring NHTSA to decide on the petition.
“The agency's time to respond to the petition has long since passed,” Adina Rosenbaum, an attorney at Public Citizen, said in a statement. “The agency should end its delay at once and comply with its statutory obligation to respond.”
When it was announced, the automatic braking pact was hailed by NHTSA officials as an innovative move and an example of Rosekind's crusade to cement a more “proactive” stance on safety at both automakers and NHTSA itself. At the time, Rosekind said the 2022 timing of the pact would make automatic braking a standard feature far sooner than a formal rulemaking process would have, though he didn't rule out a future mandate for the technology.
“Voluntary standards don't work,” Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and president emeritus of Public Citizen, said in a statement. “They protect manufacturers, not consumers. AEB is one of the most important lifesaving automotive systems available today. Yet the U.S. Department of Transportation is refusing to use its statutory authority to assure that consumers can rely on a safe AEB system in every car sold in the U.S. and won't even answer our consumer petition for action.”
A NHTSA spokesman was unavailable for immediate comment.