WASHINGTON -- Mark Rosekind, confirmed to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, faces immediate pressure to take a tougher stance with automakers and suppliers on safety matters, reset the agency's culture and manage the coming wave of autonomous-vehicle and other advanced technologies.
Rosekind’s nomination to head NHTSA was confirmed late Tuesday by the U.S. Senate, filling a lengthy vacancy atop the nation’s auto safety regulator.
His confirmation comes a year after former NHTSA administrator David Strickland announced plans to resign from the agency.
Since Strickland stepped down, NHTSA has been beset by regulatory lapses exposed by General Motors’ faulty ignition switches and Takata airbag recalls.
Rosekind, a former NASA official and member of the National Transportation Safety Board, will take the helm as NHTSA races to determine the root cause of exploding airbag inflators made by Takata Corp.
The airbags have been linked to five deaths, scores of injuries and prompted recalls of more than 13 million vehicles in the U.S. since 2008.
NHTSA has called on Honda, Chrysler, Ford, Mazda and BMW to issue nationwide recalls for driver-side Takata inflators and demanded that Takata declare those inflators defective, which the company has refused to do. Only Honda and Mazda have agreed to the national recalls.
David Friedman, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, said this week the agency will force the remaining automakers and Takata to issue national recalls if necessary. The agency is reviewing hundreds of thousands of documents from Takata and automakers as part of an investigation. NHTSA wants to build an “airtight case” for its recall order and ensure the agency prevails if challenged in court by Takata and the automakers.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he hoped Rosekind’s arrival would help recharge the agency amid the Transportation Department’s ongoing review of NHTSA's culture that began October.
“It will give us an opportunity to push a reset button and to amp-up some of the efforts we have underway to look at our safety culture,” Foxx said on the sidelines of a briefing on drunk driving Tuesday.
Foxx praised NHTSA’s overall track record of prompting some 1,200 recalls over the last ten years, but said improvements are needed, and repeated a previous call to raise the maximum fine NHTSA can levy against automakers from the current $35 million to $300 million.
“It’s disappointing that the system we have hasn’t been working better but it also reminds us perhaps there are some things that we should be looking to congress to help us with to give us additional tools to ensure that we’re getting more timely information from the automakers, including lifting the penalties,” Foxx said.
Beyond the agency’s immediate regulatory challenges, Rosekind’s nomination reflects a longer-term recognition by the Obama administration that the nation’s auto safety watchdog will face new oversight from autonomous-vehicle and advanced technologies.
Rosekind is a renowned expert on human fatigue, who led a program while at NASA in the 1990s to evaluate and prevent the effects of pilot fatigue, and later founded a fatigue management company after leaving the agency.
Rosekind will be under immediate pressure to take a tough stance with automakers on safety matters. NHTSA has faced strong criticism from lawmakers, independent safety experts and consumer advocates over its failure to detect the defective GM ignition switches and Takata airbags before the problems spiraled into massive recalls.
In a Senate subcommittee hearing on his nomination last week, Rosekind vowed to make NHTSA an “enforcer” if the industry fails to tackle defect issues with enough vigor.
“In a safety culture, if people aren’t worried, they aren’t going to act in a proactive safety way,” he said during the hearing. “NHTSA needs to be the enforcer.”
Rosekind said NHTSA needed more resources and staff with the right expertise and technology to effectively police auto safety. He also said “common sense” was needed in how the agency approaches defects.
NHTSA’s resources were a major theme during last week’s hearing, with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., noting that the agency’s budget for defect investigations has been “flatlined” at around $10 million per year for several years with no increase requested for its upcoming fiscal year.
Rosekind acknowledged the challenges, noting several times during the hearing that NHTSA has just nine employees who are responsible for reviewing the roughly 75,000 complaints it receives each year.
“A lot of us don’t realize how severe the situation is,” Rosekind said.
Underscoring the pressure on NHTSA, McCaskill said Takata’s recent refusal of the agency’s request to issue a nationwide recall for airbags illustrated the “sad state of affairs” of NHTSA’s perception by industry.
“It has become clear to me … that these companies are way more afraid of a civil lawsuit than they are of NHTSA,” McCaskill said. “You have to be feared and respected, and I don’t think that NHTSA is either feared or respected at this point.”
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said NHTSA’s handling of the GM and Takata recalls left it looking like “an agency adrift.”
He pushed Rosekind to take strong action early following a confirmation to “eliminate the widely held perception that regulatory capture has taken hold at NHTSA and that this watchdog agency has become too cozy with this industry that it’s supposed to oversee and scrutinize.”
Rosekind said he would support additional authority for NHTSA to penalize automakers that violate safety laws, including increasing civil penalties above the current $35 million maximum.
The Senate Commerce committee approved Rosekind’s nomination earlier this month ahead of his full confirmation vote by the Senate Tuesday.
Rosekind’s ability to make significant changes at NHTSA hinges on Congress passing meaningful reforms. Several bills have been introduced this year that would, among other things, open up data from “early warning” defect reports to the public, increase the fines that NHTSA could levy against automakers and subject executives to stiffer penalties for breaking safety laws.
Those bills likely won’t be considered until the 114th Congress begins next year, when Republicans take control of the Senate and fortify their numbers in the House. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have criticized NHTSA and called for reforms, but passing bills to expand a federal agency or subject industry to greater oversight seem unlikely to receive widespread support from the regulation-averse GOP.