GAO: Better communication on rule-making could help road safety

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According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates, 38,824 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020 on U.S. roads and highways, with even more expected to die in 2021.

NHTSA has been mandated to complete numerous regulations and reports to address safety and related issues by both the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) of 2012 and the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) of 2015.

A review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that as of April 11, 2022, NHTSA had completed all 19 reports and 6 of the 22 regulations required by these laws. Agency officials and regulatory experts interviewed by GAO cited administrative priorities, complexity of issues, and availability of resources as factors affecting NHTSA’s completion of regulations and reports.

GAO found that NHTSA did not always follow project schedule management best practices when developing mandatory rules and reports. These practices, which include establishing milestones and sequencing activities, can help manage project timelines and reduce delays. While these practices should be applied at all stages of a project, NHTSA has followed them consistently only for the review stage of its rulemaking and reporting processes, when NHTSA procedures NHTSA specify it. For example, NHTSA followed project schedule management best practices for reviewing a proposed tire pressure standards rule, but not for activities such as obtaining and managing a research contract, necessary for the drafting of this proposed rule. Regulatory experts have noted that these time-consuming steps in the rule-making process are important because they influence the content of the rules.

Similarly, for each report mandated to Congress, GAO found that NHTSA followed leading project schedule management practices when reviewing draft reports, but not for the tasks required to write each report before the exam. Although NHTSA has completed all of the reports mandated by MAP-21 and the FAST Act, it has released nearly all of these reports after their statutory deadlines, delaying information to Congress on topics such as traffic safety that are critical to the congressional oversight.

Ultimately, the GAO found that NHTSA could better fulfill its safety mission by communicating more information about its rules to members of Congress. This information could guide funding and monitoring decisions.

The government watchdog made four recommendations to NHTSA:

  • update NHTSA’s rule-making procedures to require the use of industry-leading project schedule management practices for the activities necessary to write a proposed rule.
  • update NHTSA’s procedures for reporting to Congress to require the use of project schedule management leading practices for activities required to produce a report.
  • provide additional information about incomplete regulations to Congress, including substantive activities that NHTSA performed between regulatory milestones. The GAO adds that NHTSA may consider providing this information as part of the semi-annual reports required by the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act.
  • update NHTSA’s publicly available information, such as the Reports Sent to Congress web page or the DOT Research Hub, to include mandated research reports.

NHTSA agreed with all four recommendations.

Read the full report on GAO

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