We need more bite from our safety watchdogs

If David Friedman took any heat, it was more like warmth: sympathy from lawmakers for an agency that labors under a shortage of money and manpower. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

Over the course of two blistering hearings, General Motors CEO Mary Barra proved she has a lot to learn about the optics and political dynamics of Washington.

For a lesson, she might call up David Friedman.

The acting chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mostly charmed his way through two rounds of questioning on Capitol Hill this week that touched on the agency’s unexplained lapses, but never really seized on them.

While the corporate CEO and auto-industry veteran was all but ridiculed by lawmakers who didn’t appear to grasp the difference between vehicle engineering and manufacturing engineering (or between NHTSA and Ray Nitschke), the acting administrator appeared to get by with the equivalent of a shrug and a smile: the refrain that if only GM had disclosed more information, the agency’s hard-working staffers would have figured the whole thing out.

That is, if GM had just placed a giant placard that said “4” on top of the hundreds of early-warning reports it had submitted about airbag issues, NHTSA could have easily put 2 and 2 together.

If Friedman took any heat, it was more like warmth: sympathy from lawmakers for an agency that labors under a shortage of money and manpower. Under such ruthless questioning, Friedman simply broke down: Yes, he confessed, we could use more funding, and we have asked for it. Now stop the badgering!

The trail of GM’s misdeeds certainly deserved intense scrutiny, and Barra’s puzzling answers only invited more. She’ll soon be back on Capitol Hill.

But the taxpayers who bailed out GM are the same ones who will cover that proposed budget increase for NHTSA, and who pay its administrator’s salary. And for their money, they should demand better answers from the nation’s top auto-safety regulator than their representatives in Congress demanded this week.

The phrase that should keep Friedman up at night is contained in an April 2007 special crash investigation report on the crash of a 2005 Cobalt in Wisconsin, in which the airbag didn’t deploy. It noted that the ignition was in "accessory" position and the engine had turned off.

"It's not known what role, if any, this may have played in the nondeployment of the airbags," the investigators hired by NHTSA wrote, saying the question "was beyond the scope of this investigation."

Rough translation: We, the crash investigators, don’t know if they’re connected. That’s probably something for you, NHTSA, to look into, since, you know, you’re the nation’s auto-safety watchdog.

Shouldn’t a blinking arrow like that merit at least a “Hmmm …” from a NHTSA staffer? Who decided to file away that piece of paper without acting on it? Does that person still work at NHTSA?

As taxpayers, consumers and drivers, we need more from our watchdogs. We need them to be naturally skeptical, suspicious and proactive. I want a watchdog who scares that prowler before he even thinks of jumping the fence, and then tracks his every move if he happens to make it over.

The watchdog we’ve got says: “If he had just told me ahead of time that he was going to come by around 11:30, pry open the laundry room window and swipe the flat-screen TV, I swear I would have howled or barked — or something. Bad prowler!” Smile. Shrug.

You can reach Krishnan M. Anantharaman at krishnan@crain.com

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