NHTSA chief plans auto CEO summit

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

New York — The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans a summit this summer with the chief executives of major automakers that will address the auto industry's safety culture in the face of 2014's record-setting recalls.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told reporters at the New York International Auto Show on Thursday in a roundtable discussion that he plans a meeting sometime around June.

Rosekind noted that many in Congress have called for tougher fines, more enforcement and raised concerns about the safety culture in the auto industry. He compared it to the safety culture of the airline industry and said he wants the auto industry to be more "proactive rather than reactive."

Rosekind said it isn't clear if the meeting will involve just the CEOs of Detroit's Big Three automakers or will include the CEOs of foreign automakers as well. NHTSA has imposed a number of tough fines on automakers who haven't complied with the rules governing recalls. He plans his first major trip to Detroit in late April to meet with major automakers in Detroit and tour safety efforts.

"There are other modes of transportation that are much more proactive as opposed to what's going on in the auto industry," Rosekind said, citing the aviation industry. "What happened last year is a perfect example of what's going on: the fact that people are calling for enforcement, the fact that information is being withheld, people are concerned that the fines aren't high enough to change behavior. That's not a proactive safety culture."

The meeting will ask the CEOs to talk about automakers' individual safety culture and the industry as a whole. "We're going to start talking really differently about the safety culture," Rosekind said.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade group representing Detroit's Big Three automakers, Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG and others — said it looked forward to working with NHTSA.

"Recently NHTSA released a report demonstrating that this is the safest time in our nation's history in terms of motor vehicle safety. The agency report stated that road fatalities are at their lowest since 1949. All of us — automakers, policymakers and regulators — share in this success story, and we want to continue to focus on how we can collaborate," Alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said.

General Motors Co. came under harsh criticism after its delayed recall of 2.6 million older cars for ignition switch failures that are now linked to at least 80 deaths, and for not making safety a bigger priority. GM CEO Mary Barra fired 15 employees after a scathing internal report into the automaker's failures to recall the vehicles for more than a decade.

Automakers issued a record-setting 803 vehicle recalls involving 63.9 million vehicles in 2014, including two of the largest vehicle recalls in history -- with GM recalling more than 26 million vehicles in the United States in 84 campaigns.

Rosekind plans other meetings, including an April 28 event in Washington on finding solutions to boost recall completion rates with automakers, safety advocates and others.

The issues include boosting the completion rates to 100 percent -- from the typical nearly 75 percent completed -- parts availability and notification issues to owners. "This is one event where we want solutions created," Rosekind said.

NHTSA said the April 28 event "will focus on public education of the recall process; customer and dealership outreach; parts production challenges and recall repair rates. The input gathered by the working groups will be used to identify best practices and new approaches for improving the recall process."

Rosekind praised 10 major automakers for working together to research failures in exploding Takata Corp. air bags to determine the root cause and whether the replacement air bags will be subject to similar failures.

Rosekind also will unveil a two-year strategy with short-, medium- and long-term goals to improve the safety agency's performance. The Obama administration has proposed nearly tripling the agency's budget and doubling the number of safety investigators. He says it is not clear if Congress will agree to offer additional funding. "It's not in the headlines," Rosekind said. "We need those stories of people dying and getting hurt... I think there is still a window still for us to see some action."

The Obama administration's six-year highway funding bill unveiled last week proposes to give the agency dramatic new authority to get unsafe vehicles off the roads and force dealers and automakers to do more. "Everybody's got a shared responsibility here. Now the focus is going to be on Congress to figure out what they are going to step up and do," Rosekind said.

Republican leaders have been noncommittal about the budget increase requested.

He plans another summit with government officials and an event in May on distraction. NHTSA also plans a webinar on Apr 29 to discuss new crash data systems to replace the National Automotive Sampling System.