Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

Trump's Deregulation Push Takes Aim at Noise Mandate for Hybrid Cars

  • NHTSA eyes car backup-cameras, hybrid sound requirements
  • Safety advocate says altering life-saving rules ‘bad policy’

The U.S. government’s auto-safety watchdog is taking a second look at a rule requiring hybrid and electric vehicles to emit a noise to alert nearby pedestrians to their presence.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in fiscal 2018 budget documents provided to Congress that it’s considering six areas for deregulation, including standards for rear-view mirrors and backup cameras in passenger cars, an electronic stability-control mandate for heavy trucks, and a rule allowing car dealers to install switches to deactivate airbags in customer vehicles.

The agency didn’t specify whether it wants to repeal the rules in their entirety or merely alter certain elements of them. Automakers have argued that some of the dozens of decades-old safety standards administered by NHTSA are outdated and hamper the introduction of new technologies. But moving too aggressively could put the agency at odds with safety advocates.

Agencies across the federal government are reviewing regulations as part of President Donald Trump’s pledge to slash rules viewed as costly, unnecessary or detrimental to job creation.

The requirement that hybrid and electric vehicles emit a noise was mandated by Congress in 2010, and it’s not clear if lawmakers would have to approve any change to the rule. The vehicles are nearly silent at low speeds and NHTSA’s regulation sought to reduce accidents involving pedestrians, especially the blind.

Pedestrian Injuries

NHTSA estimated the requirement would prevent some 2,400 pedestrian injuries per year at full implementation, and add costs of about $130 for each hybrid and $55 for each electric vehicle, many of which already produce alert sounds.

The rule became final in December. While it was set to take effect in February, the Trump administration has delayed the effective date until September. Trade groups representing automakers including General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG, Ford Motor Co. and others petitioned NHTSA for additional flexibility.

In a statement, NHTSA said the request illustrates agency activities for the coming fiscal year and should not be viewed as comprehensive or as a final decision.

"NHTSA is working with the new administration on its regulatory portfolio and priorities, including pending petitions for reconsideration," the agency said.

‘Obligation to Explain’

Auto industry groups have petitioned the agency to change some of the rules identified in the request. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Tesla Inc. filed a joint petition in 2014, for example, urging NHTSA to update the rear-visibility standard, allowing cameras as an option to fulfill the requirement that vehicles have rear-view and side mirrors. Mirrors are still required, for now.

“This looks like to me that the agency was trying to figure out what things they didn’t really need and what things really aggravated the manufacturers,” said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator under President Jimmy Carter and president emeritus at Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer-advocacy group. “But I do think the agency does have the obligation to explain these things when they take effect.”

Auto Alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said in an email that automakers generally support deregulation because it helps keep vehicles affordable. She added the group would have to review NHTSA’s proposal to see if the areas identified are the best candidates for changes.

Henry Jasny, senior vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, disputes whether NHTSA has the authority to repeal rules required by Congress, including the backup-camera standard and the stability-control requirement for heavy trucks.

That rule was finalized in 2015 and requires new buses and semi-trucks to have electronic stability control starting this August. NHTSA estimated the requirement will prevent around 1,420 to 1,760 crashes and 40 to 49 deaths per year.

"It’s bad policy to take off the books policies that are effective now and saving lives,” Jasny said.

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