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What is NHTSA?

If you've spent any amount of time surfing the site, you've probably begun to ask yourself this question. It's no secret that we frequently use NHTSA as a source of automotive safety information.

Let's take a closer look at this important government agency and its various activities.

NHTSA is an acronym for National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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NHTSA was founded in 1970, after passage of the Highway Safety Act of 1970. Its roots actually go back a little further, though, to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966, and later, to the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1971.

OK, well and good. But what does NHTSA actually do?

As NHTSA proclaims in its mission statement, the agency's main focus is "to save lives, prevent injuries and reduce traffic-related health care and other economic costs." As such, NHTSA functions as both an information source and an investigatory body. Its responsibilities fall into three main areas.


For the average American, this is where NHTSA has the most impact and visibility. For instance, NHTSA conducts independent crash testing of many new vehicles and then scores them using a five-star rating system. Most Americans are probably familiar with this system, since automakers often use NHTSA's crash scores in their advertising materials to show that their cars are safer than the competition.

A little known facet of this program: NHTSA buys cars right off the lot, like an average consumer, to avoid receiving vehicles from manufacturers that are artificially "prepped" or reinforced. For this reason, the agency cannot afford to test every vehicle on the market and must instead choose representative vehicles.

The NHTSA's crash-test program includes not only front-impact testing but side-impact testing as well. The agency also conducts rollover testing on SUVs and pickup trucks.

Through its crash testing and related programs NHTSA plays a vital — and growing — role as watchdog of vehicle safety. For more on NHTSA's efforts in this area, see our article What Crash Test Scores Mean.

NHTSA is also responsible for setting and monitoring fuel economy standards, and for investigating manufacturer defects. The agency played a key role in the Bridgestone/Firestone tire controversy.

It's instructive to note, in fact, how the Firestone tire case played right into NHTSA's hands. With many elected officials up for reelection that November and with the highly visible case garnering headlines all over the world, Congress had no choice but to act quickly and decisively. As a result, both houses voted unanimously to pass a powerful new transportation bill. In a sense, NHTSA got its teeth back — and a larger budget — after the mostly laissez-faire, non-regulatory climate of the '90s.

Headlines notwithstanding, NHTSA is subject to the political winds that blow through the nation's capital. Depending on the climate, its funding can rise or fall.

Information and education

In addition to its research efforts, NHTSA serves as a clearinghouse for safety-related information to the public. Since its funding is paid for by tax dollars, the agency has an obligation to serve the common good.

One example of this is the annual accident statistics that NHTSA collects every year. The agency's report provides an extensive and in-depth overview of fatalities, injuries, speeding, alcohol-related incidents and the like. An exhaustive effort, the NHTSA annual overview serves as the definitive record of American driving habits.

NHTSA also funds internal studies on child safety seats, teen driver programs, new safety technologies and a host of other programs that monitor and seek to improve American safety on the road, the ultimate goal being to reduce injuries and fatalities.

Funding other research

Lastly, NHTSA commissions safety studies and gives grants to states and cities to conduct their own safety research. Under the purview of its mission statement, the agency has the authority to fund related projects.

Also, a number of universities, such as the University of Iowa, receive grants from NHTSA and DOT to finance various projects. UI's study on older drivers is one example of NHTSA's funds at work.

In addition to this, NHTSA gives money to such organizations as the AAA Foundation of Traffic Safety and other non-academic research facilities for ongoing safety research.

In closing...

It's clear to us here at that NHTSA provides a valuable service to American citizens concerned about traffic safety. Next time you see a reference to NHTSA in one of our stories, you'll now have a more comprehensive understanding of the agency's mission.

Check out NHTSA for yourself at their Web site or at