The Beltway
An occasional column by Gabe Nelson, Automotive News' D.C. correspondent, analyzing the auto industry's relationship with Washington.
GABE NELSON

NHTSA’s chief must be feeling Opening Day jitters

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Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.
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WASHINGTON -- Opening Day is bittersweet when you expect your baseball team to finish last. The thrill of that first crack of the bat soon gives way to a recognition that the losses will soon pile up, just as you knew they would.

And that’s how David Friedman, acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since January, will feel on Tuesday when Congress kicks off a grueling doubleheader of hearings on General Motors’ ignition switch woes.

Friedman spent years toiling in the minor leagues of public policy, as a fuel economy advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists, before joining NHTSA last year. Though he’s a capable mechanical engineer, Friedman was not really an expert on the intricacies of auto safety, unlike his predecessor, David Strickland, who had grilled auto executives and regulators from the other side of the table as a U.S. Senate staffer.

Neither was he a politician, compared with the affable Strickland or the smooth-talking Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. To agency watchers, Friedman was appointed because the White House saw him as a valuable asset to NHTSA with the “midterm review” for President Obama’s fuel economy standards getting under way.

He’s on the big stage now. But any excitement will disappear in short order, because Friedman will have to explain why NHTSA failed to make GM recall the ignition switch used in the Chevrolet Cobalt. And no matter how hard he swings, he cannot win.

Either his agency’s staffers were asleep at the switch, so to speak, or they knew that GM had a problem on its hands and failed to do anything about it. NHTSA can argue that GM hid the truth, but in any case, the agency failed to prevent deaths that were entirely preventable. The agency’s reputation in the eyes of the public and its esteem in the eyes of Capitol Hill will suffer -- and Friedman will be the face of that failure.

NHTSA has tried to ease him into the spotlight since he became acting administrator in January. He was the keynote speaker in January at SAE International’s “government-industry meeting” in Washington, which is the marquee event of the year for engineers and policy nerds who know what the acronym ODI stands for.

(For the uninitiated, it’s “Office of Defects Investigation.” That is the office at NHTSA that decided in 2007 not to open a formal investigation into GM’s ignition-switch problem, for reasons that Friedman will have to explain this week.)

During that January gathering here, he announced that NHTSA was putting out crash-test standards for child seats. Arrangements had been made for the room to be filled with TV cameras, because nothing gets NHTSA positive play on the nightly news like showing parents that the government is keeping their children safe in cars.

That was a softball for Friedman. A big ol’ batting-practice meatball. But you won’t get any more of those, rookie.

Welcome to the big leagues.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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