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INDUSTRY LEADER OF THE YEAR: Mark Rosekind, Administrator, NHTSA
 
Mark Rosekind isn’t just policing the auto industry. He’s ordering it to rehab.

Less than year into his tenure as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Rosekind, 60, has transformed the relationship between the regulators and the regulated, using his agency’s authority creatively to compel the industry to change its ways.

The first signs of his groundbreaking approach came just weeks after he was confirmed as administrator, when the agency hit American Honda with a $70 million penalty for underreporting death and injury claims possibly linked to vehicle defects over more than a decade.

The fine was the maximum allowed by law. But the order from Rosekind’s agency went a step further.

It required Honda to overhaul its reporting processes to prevent future lapses and operate under stricter oversight of its safety protocols.

“That’s what is so important. It’s not only to punish past behavior,” Rosekind told Automotive News at the time. “What we really care about is the safety going forward.”

Behind the more proactive stance is a commitment to breaking what has been a predictable and frustrating pattern over the decades: automakers lurching from crisis to crisis while the law and the overwhelmed regulatory apparatus remain a step or two behind.

Rosekind knows his detectives are outnumbered and his enforcement tools are flimsy. But rather than throwing up his hands, he has shifted the burden to automakers — not to police themselves, but to confront and tackle their demons so safety concerns are defused before they erupt into deadly crises.

His weapon of choice: consent agreements that seek to extract meaningful changes in the name of safety.

In the case of Fiat Chrysler, which was found to have been delinquent in its handling of 23 recalls since 2009, a $70 million penalty imposed in July was just the beginning of the enforcement action. NHTSA also ordered three years of oversight by an independent monitor who would be paid by FCA but report to NHTSA. Also included in the expansive consent decree were more than two dozen “performance obligations” designed not only to fix FCA’s shortcomings but to cement lessons learned from earlier safety crises involving Takata and General Motors. In crafting the terms, Rosekind’s team strove to turn a perennial laggard on safety into a role model for the industry.

“What started in GM with some independent oversight has clearly evolved now to having a monitor, which was used by DOJ previously with Toyota,” Rosekind said when the FCA penalty was announced in July. “We have tried to take the best of what we learned from every one of these and continue to improve each one of these actions.”

Rosekind has been tough on the industry, but he also has been a willing partner. In late April, he convened an unprecedented summit to challenge auto executives, dealers, safety advocates and lobbyists to find practical reforms for the nation’s auto recall system. He also enlisted automakers to help the agency coordinate the Takata airbag inflator recall, the largest and most complex in history.

And just as he’s demanded a more proactive stance from automakers, he’s done the same internally. After the Department of Transportation inspector general’s blistering June report into NHTSA’s own systemic shortcomings, Rosekind vowed to adopt all 17 of the inspector general’s recommendations within a year on top of numerous additional reforms already underway.

Policing auto safety is a tough enough task, and previous regulators have struggled to achieve it. Rosekind set his sights higher, leading the industry to live up to its safety-first sales pitch.

At a time when major auto defect crises so often overshadow automakers’ achievements, he’s saving the industry from itself.