WASHINGTON -- Improving the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s vehicle defect analysis and recall system is the top priority of the agency’s new administrator, who also vowed to petition Congress for additional resources and authority to bolster the agency.
Mark Rosekind, sworn in as NHTSA administrator on Dec. 22 following confirmation by the Senate, said Tuesday the agency is evaluating its entire recall infrastructure to find improvements. That includes looking at how complaints are collected and reviewed, how defects are investigated and how recalls are managed and executed.
“It doesn’t matter what you detect, because if you don’t get the recalls taken care of, you’ve still got that risk,” Rosekind said. “It’s the whole system that has to be looked at.”
A former NASA scientist and member of the National Transportation Safety Board with no direct automotive experience, Rosekind also acknowledged that he’s not very well known in industry circles. He said he plans to approach automakers with independence, clear expectations, transparency and frequent communication.
'All about safety'
“For me, it’s all about safety. I am open to working with the manufacturers or whoever it is that is going to help move safety forward,” Rosekind said, noting “if you don’t follow the law or you’re putting people at risk,” NHTSA will use “every tool that’s available” to keep drivers safe.
Rosekind said he supports increasing the maximum fine NHTSA can levy against automakers beyond the current $35 million cap.
Rosekind has begun to meet with some automakers and plans to meet with more in the coming weeks and months as he begins his tenure at NHTSA. He also said the agency is working to “formalize” some “structured ways to interact with the industry” to approach safety issues that he plans to discuss with automakers soon, while declining to discuss specifics. Rosekind he is scheduled to speak at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit next Tuesday.
GM and Takata
The agency has come under fire from lawmakers and safety advocates alike following the General Motors ignition switch and Takata airbag recalls that have been linked to several deaths and many more injuries. Rosekind called those cases “latent failures” that first surfaced in NHTSA’s recall system up to a decade ago but only fully emerged over time.
Rosekind says he’ll push for additional staff, resources and technology to address those kinds of shortcomings.
For example, new tools to analyze and recognize defect patterns from consumer complaints are being evaluated as part of a data modernization project underway prior to his confirmation, he said. He also repeated a point made during his confirmation hearing that just nine NHTSA employees are responsible for reviewing all consumer safety complaints, which are expected to exceed 75,000 this year compared to the usual 40,000 seen in most years.
“This is an agency that is so under-resourced,” Rosekind said. “It’s more severe than I realized from the outside.”
Additional authority or funding granted to NHTSA must to be approved by Congress, and it’s uncertain how willing the Republican-controlled body will be to approve additional resources for the agency. Rosekind acknowledged that challenge, and said he planned to pursue other agency improvements regardless of funding.
For example, Rosekind cited a senior employee from NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations who suggested using less data could be more effective in spotting defects, rather than more.
“You’ve got to prove it,” Rosekind said, recalling his reaction, but he supported such an approach to use technology and new techniques to improve NHTSA’s operations.
Rosekind also pointed to GM’s consent agreement signed earlier this year in the wake of its ignition switch recalls as another example of innovation. The deal, which included a $35 million fine, requires GM to meet with NHTSA monthly to review possible safety defects and provide monthly reports detailing every possible defect being investigated by the company.
“That consent order really represents kind of a new innovation of our folks here to not only get the penalty,” but deliver a message to the industry that, if the law is violated, that NHTSA will be “in your business to figure out whether you’re meeting the safety requirements or not,” Rosekind said.