Outgoing NHTSA exec fears auto safety slide

Tom Krisher
Associated Press

Detroit — The outgoing head of the government agency charged with keeping highways safe is worried that auto safety won’t be a priority for the incoming Trump administration.

Mark Rosekind, who leaves his job leading the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Friday, said during an interview with the Associated Press the agency has taken steps to modernize and change its relationship with automakers so they try to stop problems rather than reacting to deaths and injuries.

Rosekind, a Ph.D. sleep expert drafted from investigating airplane crashes and other mishaps, said the agency has come a long way from the days when it failed to connect clues about faulty General Motors ignition switches, and was too accepting of Takata’s explanations for lethal exploding air bags.

By nearly all accounts, Rosekind has accomplished a lot, sometimes cooperating with the industry and sometimes hammering misbehaving automakers with fines.

During his tenure, the agency has changed from being cozy with automakers to more of a “cop on the beat” said Sean Kane, a safety researcher and frequent agency critic.

Rosekind, 61, is proud of NHTSA’s accomplishments but fears they could be undone. The agency already is preparing for budget cuts. No replacement has been named. Spokeswomen for Trump did not return messages.

Here are five questions for Rosekind, with answers edited for length and clarity:

Q: When you started, NHTSA was under siege for the GM ignition switch deaths and Takata’s air bag inflators. It had only a few people monitoring consumer complaints and hadn’t had a budget increase in a decade. Would the agency now catch problems like GM sooner?

A: I would hope so. You just highlighted everything that has kept me up for two years and what’s going to keep me up when I leave. Two years is not a lot of time to change a culture. Part of the way you do that is to have specific processes and actions in place, and the focus has been on that. Only time will tell. There are risk matrices being done, there’s a structure in place. Congress did give us money so we’re hiring a bunch of new people. We will have a trend analysis division, that’s a connect-the-dots division that’s all about the data. We will have our version of a ‘go team’ to investigate crashes.

Q: What were your biggest accomplishments?

A: The pivot from being reactive to a proactive safety culture. The road-to-zero fatalities initiative and the autonomous vehicle guidelines. We’re working toward 100 percent recall completion, better reporting of safety defects, data sharing. Autonomous vehicles can lead to zero fatalities. It really is totally unacceptable that society accepts the carnage on roads. We have to deal with the near-term crisis and have a long-term plan to get us to zero.

Q: Are you worried that the Trump administration could undo those changes?

A: You know my biggest fear is that it doesn’t continue. The new administration is going to have its own priorities. Safety is bipartisan. The more effective and successful programs are, anyone who is going to care about saving those lives is going to want to see them solidified or expanded. Everything’s vulnerable.

Q: There have been some incidents involving new gear shifters that people don’t understand and vehicles in the wrong gear rolling over people. Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin was killed. Should shifters be standardized?

A: For 50 years it’s always been reactive. Unfortunately reactive means you’ve got to wait until somebody gets hurt or killed before you’re stepping in, the way the system is now. What you’re talking about is premarket approval. This is sometimes where regulation needs to go. It gives you standards, makes it predictable. If you do things opposite of what people expect, then you’re just creating vulnerabilities. If you have to train people on it or basically commit to them getting used to it, it’s much better for it to be intuitive.

Q: One of your cars back home in Silicon Valley has a Takata air bag inflator that hasn’t been replaced due to parts shortages. What will you do about it?

A: It gave me firsthand knowledge of how horrible the situation is. We heard that it will be ready in January. Every time we have a meeting about how it’s going, the biggest frustration for me is it’s got to go faster. Everybody that has one car and they have to drive it and actually put themselves at risk, that’s just horrible.