NHTSA says it is making significant reforms

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind vows to reshape the auto safety agency by challenging staff to rethink assumptions as he lobbies for more money, personnel and authority to remake the agency.

Rosekind — who was a board member at the National Transportation Safety Board until his speedy confirmation as administrator in December — has shaken things up at NHTSA and inherited a lot of major issues to address.

In Rosekind’s response to the scathing report by inspector general’s office, he noted NHTSA’s massive workload. He said the agency “leads the world in protecting the driving public from vehicle safety defects.”

In the last decade, NHTSA has conducted 1,060 defect investigations, resulting in 1,889 recalls, involving more than 129 million vehicles and pieces of equipment. During the period, NHTSA had just eight defect screeners, four early-warning data analysts and 16 investigators They received 1,617,245 different records about the 265 million vehicles on U.S. roads.

Rosekind told the inspector general that NHTSA has a “new training plan for staff, focused on the pre-investigative and investigative divisions, to gain proficiency in new automotive and investigative technologies.”

NHTSA said the agency already has changed many of the practices addressed by the report. It now maintains detailed records of issues presented to a defects panel, has Special Crash Investigations staff present at all defect panel meetings and uses a detailed checklist for investigations to ensure that all relevant documents are reviewed properly.

The agency is developing standardized inquiries for screening and investigating data about those new systems, increasing with government counterparts in foreign countries on defects.

NHTSA also plans to give automakers “more clarity” about early warning reporting requirements and working to allow owners “to provide more complete information to the agency, including making it easy to upload supporting documentation to the complaint.”

He will appear before the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday making the case for what the agency needs. So far his bid for more money and legal authority has largely fallen on deaf ears in Congress.

“We need to challenge the assumptions of what we are pursuing,” Rosekind said earlier this month. He told The Detroit News that NHTSA needs big changes. “We need people, technology and authority. It’s not just about the money — it’s about what it gets us. You are talking about doubling the people.”

The White House wants to triple NHTSA’s defect investigations budget and more than double the personnel. Rosekind wants two new safety divisions to help spot defects earlier.

He’s ramped up the agency’s efforts to force automakers to do more, put them on notice that he will use all of the agency’s resources to insist companies follow the rules. He wants to hold an auto CEO summit to talk about ways to improve recall response rates.

The meeting will ask the CEOs to talk about automakers’ individual safety culture and the industry as a whole. He held a day-long meeting with industry officials and advocates April 28 in Washington.

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

NHTSA has long been criticized for being too cozy with automakers. But since Rosekind was confirmed as NHTSA’s new administrator in December, the agency has taken a much more aggressive approach to auto safety issues. At the same time, some senior officials have announced plans to retire.

The GM and Takata recalls prompted six hearings in Congress and became one of the biggest business stories of 2014, costing automakers billions in additional costs while raising questions about whether NHTSA has the resources and legal authority to prompt fast action on vehicle defects.

NHTSA pressured Takata Corp. last month to declare 33.8 million vehicles with its air bags defective. It announced it would hold an unprecedented July 2 hearing into 22 separate Fiat Chrysler recall campaigns covering about 12 million vehicles. And it prodded Ford Motor Co. to expand a door latch recall.

The agency has taken a much more aggressive stance in recent months, prodding automakers to recall vehicles they don’t think need to be fixed. It issued more than $120 million in fines for failing to recall vehicles in a timely fashion. The agency wants Congress to boost the maximum delayed recall fine to $300 million, up from the current $35 million; and it wants sweeping authority to get unsafe vehicles off the road faster.

Earlier this month, NHTSA admitted it made a series of errors in its handling of GM’s delayed recall of 2.6 million cars with faulty ignition switches linked to 109 deaths and more than 200 injuries. The federal agency pledged to make significant reforms.

In two internal reports, NHTSA said it failed to hold GM accountable; didn’t understand alternate theories how the company’s air bags worked; and didn’t follow up on trends from its own data and investigation.

It acknowledged it missed numerous chances over nearly a decade to discover the deadly defect in 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars. In those cars, which since have been recalled, the key can inadvertently turn off the engine and disable power steering and air bags.

“There is no single individual who can be blamed for the things that happened previously,” he said, adding there was no evidence that NHTSA employees intentionally failed to do their jobs.

NHTSA said it is making changes to spot defect problems earlier, and announced that a three-member team would advise the agency on its restructuring.

Part of the problem is funding, Rosekind said. The White House proposed tripling NHTSA’s auto defects budget and doubling the number of staff assigned to it. But Congress has shown little interest in doing so.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said earlier this month is naming a three-person team that will spend the next year advising NHTSA on implementing changes outlined in the reports.

NHTSA also said it is creating “an internal risk identification and control team to ensure that pertinent changes are implemented and established for the long term.”

The Inspector General report was sought by Foxx in March 2014 to review questions about the GM recall.