New Rules for NHTSA
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) took major steps to address our nation’s traffic safety crisis, thanks in large part to the years of concerted efforts by advocates to push transportation policy and investments to prioritize safety. In addition to new funding for safe infrastructure, the BIL made significant changes to how National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) grants will be administered and documented.
While smaller than infrastructure spending, new funding for NHTSA grants means nearly $4 billion will be distributed to states for traffic safety activities between 2021 and 2026. Funding for both major NHTSA grant programs, called the 402 and 405 programs, were increased by the BIL.
In addition to new funding, major changes to NHTSA grants include:
- Highway Safety Plans are now Triennial, rather than annual, meaning they will be published every three years, to facilitate longer-range planning.
- NHTSA must “establish a public website for highway safety plans and state performance information that is easily accessible, navigable, and searchable for information.”
- The nonmotorized safety priority program increased from 5% of the 405 program’s highway safety priority grant funds to 7%, a roughly $6.5 million per year increase.
- The nonmotorized safety priority program received new eligibility to fund “(C) public education and awareness programs designed to inform motorists and nonmotorized road users regarding—'(i) nonmotorized road user safety, including information relating to nonmotorized mobility and the importance of speed management to the safety of nonmotorized road users;’ and ‘(iv) infrastructure designed to improve nonmotorized road user safety;’”
- Racial profiling data collection grants to states received an increase in annual funding to $10.35 million. Plus, $1.15 million was provided so NHTSA can provide technical assistance to states and increase utilization of the grants.
NHTSA grants are meant to be passed on through the state to local jurisdictions. At least 40 percent of each state’s 402 funding must be used in the highway safety programs of its political subdivisions prior to the end of the fiscal year.
The League of American Bicyclists (League) commented extensively on NHTSA’s new rules, which implement the changes from the BIL for how grants are to be awarded by state highway safety offices. In the final rule, they responded to many of our comments and comments from others. Highlights from the rule include:
- The League and the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) expressed concerns about reliance on the NHTSA document ‘Countermeasures that Work’, specifically that it “over-encourages investment in enforcement-related countermeasures.” In the final rule, NHTSA decided to allow Uniform Guidelines to be used to support state countermeasure choices in addition to Countermeasures that Work (CTW), after saying “The League of American Bicyclists and GHSA both noted that this [exempting 3-star CTW practices from justification] could incentivize states to conduct more enforcement.” The last version of NHTSA’s Uniform Guideline on Bicycle Safety was published in 2006.
- There will be greater transparency for the nonmotorized safety priority program: nonmotorized safety grant reporting requirements are now aligned with other grants that require a list of projects and subrecipients, rather than a self-certification.
- NHTSA said it will explore issues raised by the League related to bicycle helmet laws in its Countermeasures that Work document, specifically “costs and impacts associated with helmet use laws, such as the [sic] related to education and enforcement, and the impacts of potentially discouraging bicycle use due to enforcement efforts.”
There was an emphasis on public engagement in several ways.
- The Connecticut Highway Safety Office asked about advancing payments, instead of reimbursing costs, to community groups focused on improving equity, and NHTSA said it will issue guidance on advancing payments. Many groups have found NHTSA grants difficult to use because they are reimbursement grants that require outlays of tens of thousands of dollars that a volunteer-run or small group may not have.
- Several commenters brought up whether NHTSA funds can be used to compensate community members for participation in public processes. Many experts see this compensation as a critical tool to allow more people to participate and show the value of their time. NHTSA said that compensating community members is an allowable expense and that it will work with states interested in the practice.
- NHTSA said they recently hired two staff members dedicated to providing technical assistance to states on outreach and engagement efforts and will provide a suite of resources on public engagement in coordination with NHTSA’s Office of Civil Rights, including webinars.
- NHTSA reiterated its commitment to Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.
With a final rule in place, states can begin work on their Triennial Highway Safety Plans and other aspects of grant programs impacted by these new rules. We encourage community-based organizations, including bicycle advocacy groups, to reach out to their state Highway Safety Offices to see what opportunities might be available under these new rules.