Is NHTSA nominee up to the task?
WASHINGTON -- As an expert on human fatigue, Mark Rosekind is well-suited to steer the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration toward the era of autonomous driving and connected-car technologies. But in the near term, Rosekind will have to prove to members of Congress that he is up to the task of revitalizing an agency beset by lapses exposed in the General Motors ignition switch and Takata airbag scandals. Rosekind will need to address "how to restore the public's trust in America's auto safety watchdog ... the need to implement the cultural change that's needed at the agency" and how it can keep up with the fast-changing auto industry, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who heads the Senate Commerce Committee's consumer-protection panel. Rosekind, who was appointed last month to head NHTSA, faces a Senate confirmation process that begins Wednesday and will put him face to face with several lawmakers who have been harshly critical of the agency and demanded reform. NHTSA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator since January, when David Strickland stepped down and left his deputy, David Friedman, to serve as NHTSA's public face.
McCaskill: How to restore trust
The senators who will pass judgment on Rosekind have proposed several bills that would boost NHTSA's funding and enforcement powers, and they are likely to demand a commensurate level of responsiveness and accountability on the part of the regulator. A lack of agency resources has been a recurring theme of congressional hearings into the GM and Takata recalls. NHTSA allocates just $10 million a year to its roughly 50 staffers who investigate defects in automobiles, buses, commercial vehicles, heavy-duty trucks and child car seats. By comparison, GM alone hired 35 safety investigators this year to beef up its defect investigation department, on top of the staff it already had, CEO Mary Barra told a U.S. House committee in June. "NHTSA and Dr. Rosekind will face serious challenges and must do a better job discerning danger in cases like those involving GM ignition switches and Takata airbags, which imperiled drivers long after NHTSA had reason to act," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement. "At NHTSA, regulatory capture has created a failure to ask tough questions and has needlessly put lives at risk," he added, referring to the close relationship between the agency and the industry it regulates. Since 2010, Rosekind has been a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates major transportation accidents. He was a NASA official in the 1990s, where he led a program to evaluate and prevent the effects of pilot fatigue, and he founded a fatigue-management firm after leaving the agency. At NHTSA, Rosekind must overcome his limited experience with the auto industry and with running a large organization. "Given the GM ignition switch and now Takata, I would have expected someone with more of a hands-on experience in vehicle safety," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told Reuters. But some of NHTSA's outspoken critics were pleased with Rose-kind's nomination. Joan Claybrook, NHTSA's administrator under President Jimmy Carter, called Rosekind "an excellent choice." "He understands regulation and law enforcement, both of which are critical as the leader of NHTSA," she said. "And he recognizes that regulators are not necessarily popular no matter what they do."
On the docket
Lawmakers have introduced several bills this year to improve compliance with and enforcement of federal auto safety laws.— Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2014*Sponsor: Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.Requires more automaker disclosures about fatal accidents and greater public access to safety reports, increases NHTSA funding for vehicle safety programs, boosts maximum agency fine to $200 million— Early Warning Reporting System Improvement ActSponsor: Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.Requires more automaker disclosures about fatal accidents and greater public access to safety reports, requires NHTSA to upgrade its online databases and provide public notice of all defect investigations — Motor Vehicle and Highway Safety Enhancement ActSponsor: Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.Doubles funding for NHTSA's vehicle safety operations over 6 years, raises or eliminates caps on NHTSA fines for violations, gives federal prosecutors more freedom to pursue criminal charges against safety-law violators — Whistleblower bill Sponsor: Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. Provides cash incentives to encourage industry employees to alert officials about faulty products— Hide No Harm ActSponsor: Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.Makes it a crime, punishable by fines and prison time, for an executive to knowingly conceal corporate actions that pose risk of death or serious injury*Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
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