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Senators urge Obama to overhaul NHTSA

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Three U.S. senators on Wednesday urged the White House to reform the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration when it nominates a new permanent chief.

The agency has been operating for 11 months without a Senate-confirmed administrator after David Strickland left to join a Washington law firm. A senior administration official told reporters on Oct. 24 that President Barack Obama was likely to name a new permanent chief within two weeks.

Senators Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Bill Nelson, D-Florida, called on Obama to reform NHTSA’s safety mission when nominating its new administrator.

The senators wrote, “NHTSA must alter its practices to require automakers to publicly release more information about accidents that could be caused by safety defects, upgrade its own safety databases and do a better job of enforcing compliance with transparency measures intended to provide early warnings about potentially dangerous defects to the public.”

In a Detroit News interview Oct. 31, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx declined to offer an update on the search for a permanent chief, repeating that a decision was expected “soon.” Officials have said a nomination could take place as early as later this week, but nothing has been finalized. Several months ago, Foxx interviewed a state transportation official as a potential candidate but that person is no longer in the running.

David Friedman, the agency’s No. 2 official, has repeatedly refused to say if he is interested in the job permanently. Foxx hasn’t answered if Friedman is being considered.

NHTSA suffered a series of missteps in recent weeks after it warned consumers about a recall of Takata airbags by 10 major automakers. The agency issued a press release misstating what vehicles were covered by air bag recalls and the number of vehicles covered. The following day it issued a new release that also misstated the total number of vehicles covered. And the agency’s website suffered a significant outage for nearly a week.

In September, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said NHTSA had “serious deficiencies” that needed to be corrected.

“You didn’t figure it out — and why you cannot take a measure of responsibility for that at this hearing has frankly got us all scratching our heads,” she told Friedman at a hearing.

She noted the agency had sought only a handful of new staffers and could have asked for more money for contractors.

The agency has come under criticism from both parties for its failure to detect problems with GM ignition switches for years that are now linked to at least 32 deaths and 35 crashes.

A report by House Republicans in September said NHTSA made a series of critical mistakes and had “ample information” that should have allowed the agency to discover General Motors’ ignition switch defect.

The agency also came under harsh criticism from some members of Congress for not being more aggressive in pushing Toyota Motor Corp. to do more to address sudden unintended acceleration issues that came to public attention in 2009 and 2010.