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NHTSA chief grilled by Congress on latest air-bag death

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The Obama administration’s top highway safety official was grilled about the federal government’s handling of recall notifications after the recent death of a Texas teenager in a car than had been called back for a faulty Takata air bag.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind was summoned to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led by Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, in a hearing that was promoted as a chance for lawmakers to review federal oversight of the agency.

Upton said “there are not many issues as important as keeping Americans safe on the road” as he cited problems with “low recall completion rates, Takata recalls and cyber-security issues.”

“It’s a matter of life and death,” he said of the importance of proper oversight of the nation’s auto industry.

Rosekind touted his efforts to bring change to the highway safety agency since he took office in 2014, saying NHTSA is now “leaning forward on autonomous vehicle technology” and overseeing a “record setting nearly 900 recall campaigns.”

“This is perhaps the most aggressive use of the agency’s enforcement authority in its history,” he said.

Rosekind added, “You are going to hear NHTSA talk a lot in the months to come about proactive safety, about the need for all of us with a role in protecting the public to make safety our highest priority.”

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, lamented the recent death of a Texas teenager that has been identified as the 11th fatality to be associated with the defective Takata air bags.

Seventeen-year-old Huma Hanif was killed behind the wheel of a 2002 Honda Civic. After a minor accident, the inflator in the air bag ruptured and sent shrapnel into her neck.

“She died in her own car with her seat belt still on,” he said. “I know that we’ve made a lot of progress in getting recalled cars in for repair. We’re right now about 70 percent. That’s great. But I also know and I worry about another Huma being out there.”

Rosekind told the panel that that Hanif’s car “was already under recall, but had not been repaired.”

“The manufacturer reported sending at least six notices to the family,” he said. “The family reports not receiving any of them, so that’s being investigated right now.”

Rosekind said he is working to boost the response rate for auto recall notices to prevent future incidents like the one that claimed Hanif’s life.

“As much as is currently being done to notify people, it’s not enough,” he said. “I will just say in the last fatality, we saw a spike from 50,000 to 175,000 checks of people’s VIN numbers, so we know that every time we make people aware, they pay attention and that has the potential to save more lives.”

Democrats on the panel criticized a voluntary agreement between NHTSA and U.S. automakers on a set of principles for safety improvements that was announced in January after a drastic spike in the number of car recalls in recent years.

The agreement calls for automakers to work together with federal regulators to achieve four goals: enhancing and facilitating “proactive safety,” enhancing “analysis and examination of early warning reporting data,” maximizing “safety recall participation rates” and enhancing “automotive cybersecurity.”

Rosekind touted the agreement on Thursday as a “historic” deal that would improve U.S. road safety, but Democrats on the House Energy Committee said the deal is toothless because it does not have strong enough enforcement mechanisms.

“It’s nothing more than an agreement to try to agree in the future,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D.-N.J.

Rosekind defended the agreement, telling the panel that it “could change the safety conversation from reactive to proactive.”

He said the pact between the federal government and automakers is already starting to pay dividends in changing the cultures of the agency and the car companies.

“We have a safety meeting coming up next week basically where we are going to be looking at how to take aviation lessons learned and apply them to the auto industry,” he said, noting that preemptive reporting of safety defects is much more widespread in that industry.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing