Federal auto regulators are cracking down. This month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has forced Takata Corp. finally to admit that its recalled airbags are defective and has set a July 2 public hearing to investigate Fiat Chrysler's performance in a series of 20 recalls.
The agency's fresh vigor since Mark Rosekind was appointed administrator goes beyond serving notice that there's a new sheriff in town. It demonstrates that NHTSA, backed by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and key members of Congress, is setting higher standards for public safety and losing patience with prolonged recalls.
NHTSA has far to go in becoming an effective public watchdog. But Rosekind's new focus on breaking protocol deadlocks and achieving results is a good start.
It's entirely appropriate that motoring consumers have a vigilant protector in the federal government. Public safety must always come first, and the annual death toll on U.S. roads is still too high.
For decades, the auto industry and U.S. regulators have worked to make automobiles safer in collisions -- with crumple-zone and safety cage body designs, seat belts, airbags and dozens of other innovations. More recently, automakers have focused on safety technology to prevent collisions.
Yet even before the Takata airbag crisis mushroomed into potentially the largest safety recall action in U.S. history, it was clear that the current recall system is broken. Whether the issue is broad or narrow, whether it involves millions of vehicles or a few dozen, the recall process misses too many owners and fixes too few defective vehicles.
The recall procedure too easily can devolve into legalistic moves: feds imposing recalls and manufacturers resisting or trying to minimize the extent.
Long term, the industry and regulators must develop a better recall system.
More immediately, regulators can enforce existing rules. The auto industry's only effective defense is to get in front of the issue and become a vocal leader on auto safety.
Under Rosekind's leadership, NHTSA is taking the first steps. On Takata, he is providing much-needed clarity on how to proceed and setting priorities on which vehicles get fixed first.
Now NHTSA must expand its initiative to other problems and demonstrate that it is an open agency and a public advocate.
Automakers and their suppliers should get on board to demonstrate to the public that they fully embrace auto safety.