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Understanding the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Welcome to the Understanding NHTSA transition site page. Here you will find useful information about who we are and what we do. For additional information about NHTSA, please go to or click here to access an electronic version of the NHTSA Modal Transition Highlights book.

Who We Are

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970, as the successor to the National Highway Safety Bureau, to carry out safety programs under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966. 

NHTSA works every day to help Americans drive, ride and walk safely. We do this by promoting vehicle safety innovations, rooting out vehicle defects, setting safety standards for cars and trucks, and educating Americans to help them make safer choices when driving, riding, or walking.


  • Fifty years ago, on September 9, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act into law. These laws  created the National Highway Safety Bureau, the precursor to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
  • Four years later, NHTSA was established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970 to carry out safety programs under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966. The Vehicle Safety Act has subsequently been re-codified under Title 49 of the U. S. Code in Chapter 301, Motor Vehicle Safety. NHTSA also carries out consumer programs established by the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972, which has been re-codified in various Chapters under Title 49. 
  • On December 4, 2015, the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act (Pub. L. No. 114-94) was enacted into law, providing long-term funding certainty for highway and motor vehicle safety. 
  • These laws have led to one of the most effective public health and safety efforts of the past half century.  NHTSA's efforts have led to hundreds of thousands of lives saved by making vehicles safer and helping people choose to drive more safely. The following is a list of some of NHTSA's formative events and accomplishments: 
    • NHTSA's Office of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) offers the first national guidelines for training emergency medical technicians (1971).  NHTSA continues to advance a national vision for EMS through projects and research; fosters collaboration among Federal agencies involved in EMS planning; measures the health of the Nation's EMS systems; and delivers the data EMS leaders need to help advance their systems.  
    • The Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving was established in 1982, the same year as the first dedicated national grant program to combat drunk driving. 
    • The first child passenger safety law was enacted in Tennessee in 1978. All States  enacted laws by 1985. 
    • New York State enacted the first seat belt laws in 1984. All States (except New Hampshire) enacted laws by 1995. The passive motor vehicle restraints rule, which requires all vehicles to be equipped with seat belts took effect with model year 1987.  NHTSA launched the Vince and Larry, "You Could Learn A Lot From A Dummy," media campaign in 1985 to boost seat belt use.  
    • In 2002, NHTSA launched its first nationwide Click It or Ticket seat belt campaign.  By 2015 seat belt use across the United States reached an all-time high rate of 87 percent. 
    • The 21-year-old minimum drinking age laws were achieved nationwide in 1988 and nationwide zero-tolerance drunk driving laws for drivers under 21 were achieved in 1998. In 2003, the first national media campaign to fight drunk driving was launched. In 2005, the .08 Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) drunk driving laws were enacted nationwide. In the following decade, as a result of the laws, high-visibility enforcement, and media efforts, drunk driving fell 23 percent. 
    • The New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) was established to provide crashworthiness ratings for new vehicles. Five-Star Safety Ratings were offered in 1993 to help consumers compare ratings and safety features of new cars and trucks.  Research and Rulemaking efforts are underway to update the NCAP program to accommodate emerging vehicle safety technologies.  
    • Driver and passenger side air bags were required in cars and light trucks by model year 1998. In 2013, a NHTSA study estimated that 43,000 lives were saved by air bags. 
    • In the past decade, NHTSA has expanded our efforts across traffic safety including an Electronic Stability Control (ESC) rule to prevent vehicle rollover; preventing distracted, drowsy, and drugged driving; new fuel economy rules; the "Where's Baby?"  media campaign to prevent heatstroke in cars; and an increased emphasis on pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

What We Do

NHTSA works every day to help Americans drive, ride, and walk safely.  NHTSA does this by promoting vehicle safety innovations, rooting out vehicle defects, setting safety standards for cars and trucks, and educating Americans to help them make safer choices when driving, riding, or walking.

Through NHTSA’s regional program operations, we deliver congressionally allocated funds directly to the States to help them target their individual traffic safety problems. We work with State and local law enforcement to promote roadway safety. That work includes cracking down on drunk, drugged, and distracted driving; enforcing seat belt and helmet laws; discouraging drowsy driving; promoting proper child car seat use, wearing bicycle helmets, and other efforts that save lives and prevent injuries.

The national safety campaigns, “Click It or Ticket,” “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over,” and “U Drive. U Text. U Pay.” have had substantial impact on traffic safety.  More recently, NHTSA created the “Safe Cars Save Lives” campaign to educate consumers on the importance of quickly addressing vehicle recalls.  Finally, NHTSA’s 5-Star Safety Ratings assist consumers with the safety data they need when purchasing a vehicle.

Through NCAP, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, and ongoing research, NHTSA encourages the adoption of technologies that will better protect drivers and passengers in a crash.  NHTSA investigates possible safety defects and recalls vehicles, child seats, and other products when necessary.  NHTSA also ensures that all new vehicles and certain categories of vehicle equipment comply with Federal safety standards. 

NHTSA works to increase the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks to help consumers save money at the pump and to reduce the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change.

NHTSA recently issued the DOT/NHTSA Federal Automated Vehicles Policy for the safe and rapid development, testing, and deployment of advanced automated vehicle safety technologies. With the potential to transform personal mobility and open doors to people and communities - people with disabilities, aging populations, communities where car ownership is prohibitively expensive - automated and electric vehicles  have the potential to save energy, reduce air pollution, and most importantly save lives.

Finally, NHTSA, along with OST, FHWA, FMCSA, and the National Safety Council launched a Road to Zero campaign focused on eliminating roadway fatalities.  

In all that we do, our decisions are driven by data. The collection and analysis of traffic safety data is essential to ensuring that resources are directed to the most pressing issues in the most effective manner.

Organization Chart

NHTSA Organizational Chart Without Political Names 

Line of Succession

1. Deputy Administrator, NOA-001 – Terry Shelton (Acting)

2. Chief Counsel, NCC-010 – Paul Hemmersbaugh

3. Executive Director, NOA-003 – Jack Danielson

 Labor Agreements

10-Year Budget History


Congressional Committees of Jurisdiction

 NHTSA Committees of Jurisdiction Committees Only

Updated: Tuesday, January 31, 2017
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