NHTSA chief says agency needs more resources

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees auto safety, says he’ll seek new authority and additional positions for the agency because it’s underfunded and there’s room for improvement.

“There is no question that this is an agency that is under-resourced,” said Mark Rosekind, who was a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. He said he will use all the tools available to ensure compliance with auto safety mandates, but believes the agency’s staffing needs to “go far beyond” what he thought before his appointment.

Republicans have taken control of Congress and it is not clear how willing they will be to boost the agency’s budget, which has been flat for a decade. Fewer than 50 employees review all auto defect issues — and just nine review the 75,000 complaints that came in last year alone. Rosekind declined to say how many additional people he needs.

The agency has come under fire by critics in Congress who say it’s been slow to confront automakers over potential safety issues. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, said NHTSA “is neither feared nor respected” by automakers.

Rosekind sent a message to automakers but said they don’t need to be worried if they follow the rules. He said his job would be a “two-year sprint” to help boost the agency before the Obama administration leaves office. “I’ve got a couple years, max,” Rosekind said.

He called GM’s decision to withhold key information about ignition switch problems “a game changer” in the automotive industry. GM paid a record $35 million fine to NHTSA in May for delaying a recall of 2.6 million vehicles for nearly a decade; the flaw has been linked to 42 deaths and 58 injuries. GM agreed to up to three years of intense monitoring by NHTSA.

“If you don’t follow the law or you are putting people at risk,” Rosekind said, NHTSA will employ “every tool” to compel automakers to get unsafe vehicles off the road.

In 2014, automakers recalled a record-setting 63.5 million vehicles in more than 800 campaigns.

Rosekind says NHTSA is looking at new software to help the agency “connect the dots” in discovering potential defects as part of upgrading technology — including NHTSA’s recall website, which crashed for several days last year.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters that he wants Rosekind, sworn in Dec. 22, to “take the bull by the horns and make sure (NHTSA) is operating on all cylinders.”

DShepardson@detroitnews.com