Mon, Jun 01, 2015 - Page 9 News List

After bruising safety crisis, US car watchdog shows its bite

New US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head Mark Rosekind is making vehicle recalls a top priority in a bid to ensure improved safety on US roads

By David Morgan  /  Reuters, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Yusha

The US auto safety watchdog, long criticized as toothless and slow, is showing both bark and bite under its new boss — a testimony to his credentials as a safety expert and a hardening of the administration’s policy after a wave of deadly defects.

Having taken the helm of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in January, Mark Rosekind has wasted no time in forcing reluctant companies into recalling millions of defective vehicles. In doing so, he has shown greater willingness than some of his predecessors to use the government’s full legal powers over the industry, some for the first time.

In the fortnight week alone, the agency announced the biggest recall in US history, involving nearly 34 million vehicles with potentially deadly Takata Corp air bags. It also scheduled a rare public hearing to review Fiat Chrysler recalls involving 10 million vehicles and warned of potential multiple penalties that could total US$700 million.

Rosekind, 60, took over the regulator after a bruising year of criticism from the public and US Congress over failures to respond quickly to major safety crises, and he came with clear marching orders from Washington: Take dangerous vehicles off US roads.

“We brought him in to bring it,” US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said. “Having someone who personifies the kind of aggressiveness with which we expect the agency to operate is healthy for external stakeholders as well as our own folks at DOT [the US Department of Transportation] and NHTSA.”

Current and former officials say recalls did not always serve as a top priority for earlier administrators.

For instance, David Kelly, who filled the job on an acting basis at the end of the former US president George W. Bush’s administration, focused on fuel economy.

During that administration, the agency’s preferred approach was to address safety issues through voluntary service campaigns, though they were still outnumbered by recalls. Critics say a similar approach continued into US President Barack Obama’s administration.

“We finally have an NHTSA administrator who wants to be the cop on the beat,” said Joan Claybrook, who led the agency in the 1970s.

Rosekind declined to be interviewed for the story.

David Strickland, the last permanent NHTSA administrator who served between 2010 and 2013, said that Rosekind was looking for new levers to bring change, just as past agency chiefs did.

“I used tools that were uncommon when I was administrator,” said Strickland, who cited US$49 million in civil penalties he levied against Toyota Motor Corp. Up to then, the regulator’s biggest ever fine had totaled only US$1 million, he said.

During his tenure, the agency drew fire for being slow to act on unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, and over an agreement with Fiat Chrysler to limit the recall of Jeep vehicles equipped with fuel tanks that could rupture and catch fire in crashes.

Now an attorney who represents an automaker group that includes Toyota, Strickland said the compromise reached on Jeep vehicles in 2013 prevented a drawn-out legal battle that would have kept unsafe cars on the roads for years.

The same recalls are now to be scrutinized at Rosekind’s hearing next month.

Several other former NHTSA chiefs were unavailable for comment.

The appointment of Rosekind, a former member of the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), raised eyebrows because of his lack of auto industry background, but was welcomed by safety advocates, who viewed his public safety expertise credentials as eclipsing those of many of his predecessors.

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