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After 'Year of the Recall' Auto Watchdog Needs an 'Enforcer'

The nation's safety regulator is about to get a new chief, barring a last-minute hitch. He's coming after a bumper recall year for the industry.
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/ Source: The Detroit Bureau

Barring a last-minute hitch, Mark Rosekind is about to step in as the nation’s top auto safety regulator. He’ll be filling a post that has been empty for the better part of 2014 -- a year that has seen some of the biggest safety controversies in automotive history.

A scientist by training and, since 2010, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, Rosekind is expected to be approved by the Senate as the next director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In that post, he will be dealing with a slew of major issues, including the ongoing recalls of defective Takata airbags and General Motors ignition switches.

It has been a record year, with about 700 auto-related recalls covering almost 60 million vehicles – nearly twice the previous peak set in 2004. Some of the defects have resulted in deaths to drivers and passengers. NHTSA has been sharply criticized for its handling of several high-profile recalls, including for GM and Takata, even as its modest budget has stretched its resources to the limits.

“2014 is, without a doubt, the year of the recall.”

“2014 is, without a doubt, the year of the recall,” said Mike Rozembajgier, a vice president at Stericycle, a company that has worked with various automakers on handling safety-related service actions.

The 'Enforcer'

Rosekind has told Senators hearing his nomination that NHTSA needs to become “the enforcer,” taking a much tougher approach to safety and, in particular, moving faster on recalls when safety problems become apparent.

“I’ve been concerned with the slowness across all of the agency’s recalls,” Rosekind told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee earlier this month, adding that “NHTSA needs to be the enforcer.”

NHTSA has been without a permanent administrator since David Strickland announced he would depart the agency a year ago. His stand-in, David Friedman, became caught up in a swirl of problems that critics say he never could fully get a handle on, starting with the announcement by GM last February that it would recall 2.6 million vehicles because of defective ignition switches now linked to 38 deaths.

“When you see trouble in the forecast you have to confront it immediately, and NHTSA didn’t do that,” said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA Administrator during the Carter Administration who has remained active in the auto safety field.

Part of the problem, Claybrook stressed, is a lack of funding; the agency has been given only $140 million annually for its enforcement budget. There are currently just nine NHTSA investigators to pore through the 75,000 safety complaints it has so far received this year, with another 16 who can follow up in the field. The staff at NHTSA’s safety investigation office has been stalled at 50, with a budget flat at $10 million, for the past decade.

In a year marked by intense political bickering on Capitol Hill, the breadth of the automotive safety problems facing NHTSA has led to some unusual bipartisanship. A budget deal reached by Congress this month will give the agency $11 million in additional funding, bringing its 2015 budget to $830 million. But that is still $13 million less than the White House wanted.

New tech is needed

Cash isn’t the only challenge NHTSA faces. “We need to increase not just the people, but also the technology” the agency uses, Rosekind testified. It is, for one thing, looking to do a better job of linking out to automakers who must, by law, report safety-related issues. And it needs to improve its public side, among other things making it easier for motorists to report problems and track down recalls that impact the vehicles they own.

During last week’s hearings, Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and staunch safety advocate, lamented that NHTSA “is neither feared nor respected” by the auto industry. Observers say that as the agency’s new chief, Rosekind will have to strike a delicate balance. He needs to show automakers that lapses won’t be tolerated, while also being willing to listen to their perspective on safety issues.

“It’s hard to predict” how Rosekind will work with the industry, said a cautious Joe Hinrichs, Ford Motor Co.’s President of the Americas. “One of the things we’re looking for is to work together to take care of our customers so they have safer vehicles – and confidence in those vehicles.”

While Rosekind will take over a battered, criticized and overworked NHTSA, Stericycle’s Rozembajgier says the crises of the last year actually create the potential for all sides “to work together in an efficient manner.”

Safety advocate Claybrook cautiously agrees, adding that “people are coming together” around the problem. She also believes that Rosekind is the right choice for the job because he will bring a scientist’s understanding of the basic problems NHTSA will face, while also having some real world business experience. And Rosekind learned about the politics of Washington in his job with the NTSB.

Don’t expect things to slow down for the new NHTSA chief. NHTSA is still battling with Takata over the ongoing airbag recall. And tighter enforcement seems likely to keep the rate of recalls, in general, higher than they have been over the past decade. If approved by the full Senate, as now seems guaranteed, Mark Rosekind will need to use the holiday break to gear up for a tough year ahead.

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