Just when you think reporters couldn't get any more hostile to
industry, they do. Consider two mid-January television reports on
ABC's Good Morning America and NBC Nightly News. Both stories
contain mistakes which often plague reports about automobile safety,
and both ignored the trade-offs safety regulations inevitably
At issue were federal standards for rear guards on tractor
trailers. These "U"-shaped metal rods are specifically intended to
keep cars that hit the rear of a truck from riding under it. The
regulatory standard for the guards has been set at 30 inches from
the ground for the past fifty years, although the voluntary industry
standard has been 22 inches for several years. The National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) merely codified this standard
with the cooperation of the trucking industry.
That's the news part. But reporters portrayed this issue as a
grand conflict, with industry as a hostile force and
supposedly-impartial "consumer advocates" as society's protectors.
The question for reporters was how to criticize industry without
panning the government in a situation where both agreed. Here's how
they answered it:
Neither report mentioned that industry was already producing
22-inch guards. ABC's Lisa Stark, on the January 19 Good Morning
America, reported that "under the new standard, rear guards...must
be lowered to 22 inches above the ground. They're now at 30 inches."
Tom Brokaw stated in his introduction to the January 17 NBC Nightly
News segment, "The government is about to take an action that should
save lives." Robert Hager was more explicit in the NBC segment,
saying that the government will require new tractor trailers "to be
made with big rods on the back, bigger than any currently in use."
Neither report pointed out that most tractor trailers already have
the 22-inch guards -- voluntarily.
Hager employed questionable data. "Nearly 700 [people] a year die
in [ride-under] accidents," he declared. But both NHTSA and the
trucking industry put the number of deaths at 60 each year. (ABC's
Lisa Stark used the NHTSA figure.)
Both reports projected skepticism of the new standard -- but not
of the government -- as insufficiently stringent without offering
evidence. In Stark's report, Gerald Donaldson of Citizens for
Reliable & Safe Highways (CRASH) stated that the new rule "was not
selected on the basis of what would really be a big contribution to
improving public safety... [but] on the basis of what the trucking
industry would buy into."
The ubiquitous Joan Claybrook, representing CRASH in Hager's
report, said, "We don't think this rule makes significant enough
changes....Very few people are going to be protected under this
standard." Hager didn't ask Claybrook why, if she was so concerned,
she never acted on the rear guard issue when she was head of NHTSA
Neither report was skeptical of these supposedly objective
"consumer advocates." The media look at funding only when it comes
to industry associations or conservative advocates. That's why we
hear about "tobacco-funded groups," but not "trial-lawyer-funded
groups." The fact that a group is funded by parties who have a stake
in certain outcomes does not necessarily mean that what they say is
incorrect. Still, it would have been interesting if the reporters
had asked who funds CRASH; they would have discovered that CRASH is
substantially funded by the railroad industry.
Regulations intended to increase safety by decreasing one risk
often backfire by creating new risks. For example, the risk of
keeping the rear guard at 22 inches means that some small cars could
still slip under the truck. But making the rear guard lower means
that trucks could get caught on railroad grade crossings or have
difficulty maneuvering around rail yards and ports, causing
different kinds of accidents. ABC touched on this issue
dismissively; NBC only mentioned the dollar cost of the changes.
When it comes to government regulation of safety, even the most
skeptical reporters become true believers. Too eager to criticize
industry, and too receptive to "consumer groups" which invariably
advocate more government regulation, reporters often believe that we
can have more safety at no cost. But overlooking the trade-offs
involved in government regulation does not help anyone, and could,
in fact, be deadly. Who pays this price? The very people reporters
are trying to inform: consumers.
Julie DeFalco is a policy analyst with the Competitive
Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.