New auto safety standards are coming, and they might be voluntary

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is poised to announce new auto safety guidelines -- and it had better be prepared for a fight.

The federal agency has reached an agreement with several manufacturers, say sources not authorized to speak publicly on the topic, and could announce new safety standards as early as Thursday or Friday.

Though NHTSA declined to comment, the sources say the new guidelines specifically address safety features like automatic emergency braking that are designed to assist drivers in avoiding collisions.

Many automakers already offer such features, either as standard equipment or as options. But the features are typically found on high-end luxury cars, and are often not available at all on lower-priced models.

The new standards are rumored to be voluntary in nature, and will not carry the weight of law.

If that is the case, NHTSA will soon be hearing from consumer advocates, who are already angry at the prospect of the agency leaving regulation of these safety features in the hands of the automakers.

"If the agency surrenders its authority to private companies and makes these standards voluntary, the companies get to call the shots," said Harvey Rosenfeld, founder of the nonprofit public interest organization Consumer Watchdog. "If that happens, NHTSA will abdicate its own authority to regulate these matters."

Rosenfeld and others have sent a petition to NHTSA, calling on the agency to set and enforce rules for collision abatement technology. Specifically, the petition asks that the agency require all automakers to outfit their vehicles with systems that enable forward collision warning and some form of automated braking. 

The agency already recognizes and recommends such systems. Late last year, NHTSA updated its safety ratings to include points for "crash-avoidance and advanced technologies."

Rosenfeld's petition was signed by the Center for Auto Safety and by Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA administrator and current president of the interest group Public Citizen.

Rosenfeld said that if left in the hands of the automakers, crash avoidance technologies could remain out of reach for middle- and lower-class citizens.

"Wealthy people get the safety technology first, because it's offered on the most expensive cars," he said. "And it’s a big profit center for the companies. We think it's a social equity issue."

NHTSA has come under fire recently for what critics have called its bad handling of problems that led to two massive safety recalls and made 2014 the largest recall year in U.S. auto industry history. The recalls involved defective ignition switches in GM cars and failed Takata airbags in cars made by Honda, Toyota, Nissan and half a dozen other car companies.

The GM and Takata glitches led to dozens of deaths and tens of millions of dollars in U.S. fines.

Twitter: @misterfleming

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