David and Wendy Mills wondered if their 16-year old daughter would have survived a car accident.

They’re still at a loss four years later, with no traffic fatalities spiked and no rule,

She was on her way to Spring, Texas for a Halloween party, and she noticed that her friend was also in her car. Moments later, the driver took a wrong turn and the car flipped. She was ejected.

Kailee was instantly killed. The three other friends she left buckled were only able to walk away with minor scrapes.

The 2012 law directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (an agency of the Department of Transportation) to establish safety rules that require car manufacturers to warn drivers if a passenger is not buckled in a rear-seat. The agency was given three years to act.

Kailee, however, didn’t follow the regulations when she climbed into her friend’s car. According to The Associated Press, it’s just one of many car safety rules that have been in place for years.

Since 1970’s founding of NHTSA, the ever-growing docket has been a major test for the federal agency. Public pressure from Ralph Nader, a safety activist, prompted NHTSA to take on the mission to “save lives and prevent injuries, as well as reduce economic costs resulting from road traffic accidents.”

Advocates are concerned that the agency is losing focus and could get bogged down under President Joe Biden at a time when there have been increasing road accidents and reckless driving in the COVID-19 epidemic.

Jonathan Adkins, executive Director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, stated that “we need a call for action.” Adkins called the “car crash epidemic” the surge in accidents that is causing a pandemic.

The rule backlog will only grow with the broad technological requirements contained in a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in Congress. These include new breathalyzers that could disable a car if it is driven drunk, and stricter reporting standards for safety recalls.

The 600-employee federal agency currently lacks a permanent leader. Steven Cliff is the acting administrator. He was previously a deputy executive officer at California Air Resources Board which regulates emissions from cars, an important component of Biden’s climate agenda.

David Mills, a Houston-area founder of a foundation named in Kailee’s honour that promotes seat belt safety, stated that “Government shouldn’t take this long to address safety.” The foundation maintains a “Kailee’s Angels” list of those teenagers who were not properly buckled up and died in car accidents.

He said, “It’s devastating for families.”

Although the rear seat belt reminder requirement will be moving through the lengthy regulatory process in January it is expected to begin, a final rule could take many years. In the past, the agency has repeatedly missed deadlines, even those set by federal courts.

The AP reviewed the rule-making activities of NHTSA under the three previous presidents and found that at least 13 auto safety regulations are years behind schedule based on deadlines established in Congress.

Most of these rules are opposed by powerful industry as they are too costly, restrictive, or outdated. Other rules pending have been delayed by bureaucracy, or given priority over other priorities under Democratic presidents. Biden recently suspended a 2011 proposal that large commercial vehicles should be equipped with speed limiters.

At least four of the most important road safety proposals were halted by President Donald Trump, including medical evaluations for commercial truck drivers suffering from sleep apnea.

The side-impact standards for child seats are now in the midst of being approved. These standards were originally expected to be implemented in 2014. In July, 17 attorneys general from the District of Columbia and 17 states wrote to Biden requesting immediate action. Other rules pending would require car manufacturers keep records of safety defects for at most 10 years. This is as required by Congress, originally due in 2017. Anti-ejection protection measures are due for larger buses in 2014.

Despite industry support, standards for smart car headlights were not established in 2018. Smart headlights would automatically adjust high intensity lights to the oncoming traffic so that drivers don’t need to toggle between low and high beams.

Cliff was not allowed to comment by the NHTSA. Instead, the agency released a list listing steps taken to improve auto safety. This includes recently proposed fuel economy standards.

The agency cites plans to require or establish standards for automatic emergency brake systems on new passenger cars and heavy trucks. This is a reverse of Trump’s administration. It also stated that it was moving forward with some delayed regulations. However, the agency did not give any guarantees about the timing.

NHTSA pledged to set rigorous standards for autonomous vehicle testing and to establish a national database to record automated-vehicle accidents. NHTSA has asked Tesla to recall its dark touch screens. It is also investigating whether the partially automated Autopilot driving system failed to stop parked emergency vehicles.

Cliff stated in recent public remarks that the agency is committed towards reducing traffic fatalities. He also stressed the need for a “transformational, collaborative approach to safety.”

Jason Levine, executive Director of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety, has been pushing Biden to nominate a leader quickly. From 2012 to 2017, President Barack Obama was the last Senate-confirmed NHTSA administrator.

Levine stated that the Biden administration seems more interested in regulatory action than the previous administration. “That’s why there is so much excitement but also frustration that things don’t move with greater urgency.”

The Alliance for Auto Innovation is the trade association that represents all auto manufacturers except Tesla. They declined to comment on this story.

Automakers have made progress in safety matters, either through voluntary agreements with government agencies or their own. NHTSA and 20 companies signed an agreement in 2016 to include automatic emergency braking on at least 95% new passenger cars by September 1, 2022. At least 10 companies have met this goal. Twenty auto companies signed an agreement two years ago to have electronic reminders installed to remind drivers to check their backs seats to ensure children are safe in hot cars. By 2025, the industry would have the reminders installed in all new vehicles.

Since 2015, the Governors Highway Safety Association has strongly advocated for reminders for rear seat belts. They noted that less people were wearing their seatbelts when they ride in Uber, Lyft, and other for-hire vehicles.

According to NHTSA, more than half of all fatal crashes in 2012 involved unbelted drivers and occupants. This is the highest number since 2012.

In 2020, 38,680 people died in traffic accidents. This was the highest number since 2007. However, total miles traveled dropped because of stay-at-home orders that were issued at the outbreak. 8.730 people were killed in motor vehicle traffic accidents during the first three months 2021, an increase of 10.5% over the same period last years.

Unbelted passengers in the back seats of cars are responsible for more than 800 deaths each year. A report by the governors’ organization analyzing NHTSA data found that seat belts would have saved the lives of over half of those involved in crashes.

Increasing fatalities and grim statistics have prompted states to look for ways to increase seat belt use in recent months, such as through “Click it or Ticket” law enforcement campaigns. A Connecticut law was signed by the Democratic Governor. This month, Ned Lamont signed a law requiring all rear-seat passengers aged 16 or older to use a seat belt. Anyone under 16 years old was already required to buckle up.

Adkins stated that state highway safety officials were encouraged by Biden’s elevation of Jennifer Homendy to the position of NTSB chair. Homendy is a former congressional staffer who was also a member of Congress. Homendy has been involved in transportation safety for over two decades. She’s been promoting the new rear seat belt law with Lamont, and has criticized Tesla’s misleading marketing, which she claims puts lives at risk.

However, as NTSB’s head, she does not have any regulatory authority. The buzz at the recent governors safety conference was about the potential impact she could make if she were NHTSA administrator.

Adkins stated that “We need an NHTSA administrator who has been confirmed and who can get some things done.” There is no time to learn. Traffic safety is in crisis. There is still much to be done. We need the attention of the administration.”

Cathy Chase, president, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, stated that there have been a variety of delays by NHTSA, which has resulted in a patchwork safety features created by the auto industry, with no minimum standards. Many of these features are also sold in luxury cars and high-end vehicles, effectively imposing an “upcharge” for consumer safety.

She pointed out that NHTSA took 10 years to implement a 2008 mandate from Congress to install backup cameras on passenger vehicles. A lawsuit brought by her group and others was filed before the rule was finally implemented. The original deadline was 2011.

In September 2019, the European Union started requiring seatbelt reminder systems in front and back seats on new cars.

Chase stated that Chase could not say that the U.S. regulator for the auto industry is on the right track. “We are years behind at the moment. Although they are still in the first year of their administration, I’m not going to criticize them. However, the infancy will soon end and it’s time to move on.