In part 1 of this article, I explored the ways that NHTSA’s approach would cause problems if applied more broadly. In this part, I’m going to discuss how this hurts the economy, how it gets intentionally misused against companies like Tesla, and how we can actually solve the safety problems NHTSA is focusing on (pedestrian and cyclist safety).
How This Hurts The Economy
Even when not intentionally misused, this approach can cause chaos in the economy. When companies can’t predict the costs of operating in an industry, they’ll either not enter the industry at all or jump in and fail when they get in over their heads.
It can stifle innovation, as we’ve seen in the automotive industry before Tesla barely survived. It can keep new small companies from entering the industry because the big, incumbent players are the only ones who can afford to have the armies of lawyers and accountants it takes to operate in the industry. These big players then have little incentive to actually take care of their customers, because all real accountability is gone. Want to sue them? You’d better have millions of dollars to keep their lawyers busy and hope they don’t find a way to weaponize the government against you later.
It can also make it impossible for consumers to make any decisions at all, because the Karens in government and the ambulance chasing lawyers have made all of those choices for us. Once all potential danger has been removed from a product by regulators and lawyers, you’re basically stuck with the few products that somehow managed to survive that process, no matter how bad the product actually works for the intended task. It’s like evolution, but instead of allowing the strongest product to survive, such a system would favor the most risk averse.
The Weaponization of Regulation & Litigation
All of what I’ve talked about so far are the unintended consequences of this kind of regulatory philosophy, but what about when it gets used intentionally to sabotage a company or an industry?
This regulatory approach is sometimes weaponized against products and companies people want to drive from existence. In the past, controversial federal laws were passed to protect some industries from being destroyed by litigation.
For example, the Protect America Act and subsequent legislative efforts aimed to give telecom companies immunity from suit after they had been pressured by government officials to unlawfully turn customer information over. The fear was the customers and civil liberties groups would destroy these companies out of revenge for cooperating with unscrupulous spy agencies.
The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was passed after dozens of cities and gun control groups tried to sue firearms manufacturers into the ground, and possibly use this approach to bypass the Second Amendment. This isn’t something we want to explore deeply, because it’s off-topic for CleanTechnica, but regardless of our individual feelings on this, it’s yet another example of an industry that legislators felt the need to protect from litigation.
Telecoms and firearms manufacturers are far from the only industries to get some form of legal protection. Vaccine manufacturers, volunteer organizations (some of which pay their CEOs millions), and even social media companies all get some form of protection from lawsuits at the federal level. There are also numerous state protections for industries that have been seen as vulnerable to lawsuits. For example, New Mexico’s Equine Liability Act protects the operators of horse riding facilities from lawsuits related to injury caused by horses.
We can’t pass a new controversial bandaid law every time an industry is at risk of being destroyed by unreasonable litigation. We have to instead be smarter and limit all litigation and regulation to achieve reasonable safety goals. Truly negligent manufacturers who make a product that hurts people, even when responsible users are in control, should be a target, not good manufacturers whose products were intentionally misused by a small fraction of their owners.
I don’t think I have to tell CleanTechnica readers about how Tesla has been a big target, and will likely continue to be. There are powerful entities, both inside and outside of government, who would love to destroy the company by any means necessary, or short of destroying it, bring it under their thumbs. Fossil fuel companies, embezzling unions, corrupt government officials, short sellers, crooked automotive dealerships (and their associations), and many automakers would be happy to see Tesla destroyed by a tidal wave of litigation and regulation.
I’m sorry, but given the past misuse of litigation I’ve laid out here, I’m having a really hard time not seeing this as a backdoor method of getting rid of Tesla and not some good-hearted effort to protect public safety workers, cyclists, and pedestrians.
How We Can Actually Fix Pedestrian & Cyclist Safety In The United States
Even if we did fix automotive regulation and litigation to protect Tesla and the autonomous vehicle industry from being wiped out or dominated by big corporations, we’re just throwing a bandaid over a bullet hole when it comes to safety.
In most of the United States, infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians is hot garbage. Instead of having controlled highways and roads for faster moving cars to be completely separated from other road users, and then low-speed streets for safe mixed use, we have what Strong Towns calls “Stroads.”
We have fast-moving cars sharing space with pedestrians, and if cyclists are really lucky, there’s a stripe of paint to protect them from inattentive drivers who swerve all over the road, or a sign reminding these distracted drivers to “share the road.” Everywhere else, expect drivers to frequently issue you a “punishment pass” for daring to be on the road, even when they have plenty of room to pass safely.
On highways, there’s often only a narrow shoulder for disabled and crashed vehicles to be moved to, and that lack of space puts first responders in a lot more danger than Tesla’s Autopilot ever did. Sure, educational efforts asking drivers to “move over or slow down” can help, but what if we actually gave emergency personnel the space they need by adding a few feet of shoulder?
If we truly value pedestrian and cyclist safety, we need to fix these real-world root causes, and not throw legal papers on top to try to stop the bleeding.
We need to implement some of the ideas shown in this video for bikes:
Really, worrying about how cars are designed is putting the cart far, far ahead of the horse. Sure, minimizing the effects of an impact is great, but nobody ever wants to get hit by a car while they’re walking or riding a bike. The real focus of pedestrian and cyclist safety should be on preventing these accidents from ever happening in the first place.
Featured image: photo of my RadRover e-Bike. Picture by Jennifer Sensiba.
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