Auto Safety Agency Faces Calls for Overhaul as Biden Presidency Begins

For decades, across administrations of Republicans and Democrats, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has faced criticism from safety advocates who accuse it of routinely falling short of its mission.

Among their complaints: That the agency fails to promptly detect and act on deadly safety problems, such as a faulty ignition switch in General Motors cars that could turn off an airbag in a crash. That it fails to promptly carry out congressional safety mandates, keep track of the adequacy of recalls, strongly regulate autonomous vehicles and update safety standards. And that on occasion it’s too deferential to the automakers.

NHTSA has occasionally conceded failures. But typically it has defended its performance, saying it faces a huge task and has done a good job. Fifty-three million vehicles were recalled in 2019, up from 35 million the previous year. Its actions last year included investigating and penalizing Hyundai and Kia for failing to recall vehicles promptly.

With the Biden administration just underway, a coalition of six automotive safety groups is urging it to do what critics say no administration has done: provide motorists with the protection they deserve by correcting chronic weaknesses in funding, transparency, staffing and leadership at the agency. Such critics have included members of Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General. Indeed, the agency’s performance is again being audited, according to a report from August.

The coalition is hoping that change is coming. The Biden administration has a chance to “restart the agency that should be leading the world when it comes to vehicle safety,” said Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, one of the six groups.

The groups put together a 68-page report laying out ways for NHTSA to improve. It reflects the consensus of the Center for Auto Safety, the Consumer Federation of America, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, KidsAndCars.org, the Automotive Safety Research Institute, and Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law, which published it.

The report calls on President Biden to “select a tough, independent administrator not linked to the auto industry with the capacity to revitalize” the agency “and restock its inadequate technical personnel and meager coffers.”

NHTSA has strong regulatory authority and talented staff, but it needs an administration that is dedicated to protecting motorists and will resist pressure from the automakers, said Joan Claybrook, the author of the report and the agency’s top official from 1977 to 1981. For example, she said, some of the agency’s efforts to improve have been stymied by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

“The agency has been dissed and ignored and undercut,” Ms. Claybrook said in an interview.

There has been no announcement about a new NHTSA administrator, who would report to the secretary of the Department of Transportation. For that position, Mr. Biden has nominated Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and presidential candidate.

Ms. Claybrook is among safety advocates who say they are heartened by the choice of Mr. Buttigieg, who mentioned automotive safety during his presidential campaign. Sean Savett, a member of the Biden transition team, said in an email that Mr. Buttigieg was not available for comment.

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Here are some of the report’s recommendations:

Substantially increase funding for vehicle safety programs. Their duties include making and enforcing safety standards, investigating safety defects and monitoring recalls. For the 2020 fiscal year, $194 million was allocated.

“It is a tiny amount of money for the challenge, particularly with new technology, with electric cars, with autonomous vehicles,” said Ms. Claybrook, who pointed out that the military spends more than that sum on its bands alone. In 2015, the combined cost of military bands was reported to be about $437 million. A more recent figure was not immediately available.

Funding for the vehicle safety programs should be increased to $1 billion, the advocates’ report says.

Overhaul the New Car Assessment Program. It is too easy to get a top rating in its crash tests, the report says. “There is almost no value from a consumer perspective,” Mr. Levine said. “They might as well be handing out gold stars in kindergarten.” The crash tests should also start showing how well vehicles protect people of different ages, like children and the elderly.

Increase staffing. There’s a need for experts who can handle increasingly complex vehicles and autonomous technology. About 360 employees in the vehicle safety section are responsible for monitoring the nation’s fleet of almost 300 million vehicles. In 2019, they handled 966 recalls affecting 53 million vehicles. “They need a vast infusion of new talent,” Ms. Claybrook said.

Adopt regulations for autonomous vehicles. There should be no exemptions from safety standards that govern conventional vehicles, instead of a reliance on the industry to voluntarily do the right thing. At the same time, the agency must make sure it doesn’t become so focused on autonomous or electric vehicles that it ignores the automobiles most Americans drive, Mr. Levine said.

Require advanced safety technology on even the least-expensive vehicles. Examples include automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane departure and blind-spot warning. “I really think that would be a huge game changer,” said Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Take a tougher stance on recalls. For instance, give the agency the right to bring criminal charges against corporate executives for knowingly violating safety standards. “Automakers continue efforts to minimize expensive recall costs by delaying the recall, narrowing the scope of a recall, or denying the defect,” the report says.

Also, prohibit the sale of used vehicles if there is a recall that has yet to be fixed.

Adopt new safety standards. These should include requiring improvements as varied as better headlights and designs to reduce the harm to pedestrians and bicyclists in a collision, something already done by the European Union.

Enact safety standards mandated by Congress. Safety groups, frustrated by what they see as NHTSA’s failure to act, have sometimes turned to Congress to pass safety regulations. But too many of the mandates have yet to be carried out, according to the report.

Significantly improve child safety. Like requiring foldaway child restraints built into the second row to eliminate problems with improperly installed child seats. Also, adopt standards that would warn parents if a rear-seat belt was unbuckled and warn if a child was left in a vehicle.

The report says safety regulation has worked. It estimates that 4.2 million lives have been saved since 1965, when Mr. Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” focused Congress’s attention on automotive safety, resulting in safety standards and the agency now known as NHTSA.

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