NHTSA Nominee Faces Uphill Battle

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator nominee Mark Rosekind could face a grueling confirmation process, and undoubtedly has his work cut out for him if he is confirmed.  Senate Commerce Committee consumer protection panel chair Claire McCaskill (D-MO) says the new administrator’s top priority must be to bring about a “cultural change” within the agency in order to “restore the public’s trust in America’s auto safety watchdog.”

Rosekind, who was appointed to the position last month, will begin the confirmation process this coming Wednesday.   Although Deputy Administrator David Friedman has served as the agency’s interim head in the intervening months, the NHTSA has not had a Senate-confirmed administrator since David Strickland stepped down last January.

A number of Senators on the confirmation panel have previously sponsored bills that would increase the agency’s funding and enforcement powers.  The lack of resources and enforcement power was blamed for the NHTSA’s shortcomings during recent investigations into safety recalls by General Motors Company and airbag maker Takata.  Last June, GM CEO Mary Barra testified that the automaker had added 35 additional safety investigators this year alone.  By comparison, the NHTSA employs just 50 staffers who investigate safety issues related to all commercial and non-commercial vehicles and related safety equipment sold in the U.S.

In a statement, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also cited the close relationship between the NHTSA and the auto industry as a possible reason for recent lapses.   According to Blumenthal, “NHTSA and Dr. Rosekind will face serious challenges and must do a better job discerning danger in cases like those involving GM ignition switches and Takata airbags, which imperiled drivers long after NHTSA had reason to act.” He went on to say, “At NHTSA, regulatory capture has created a failure to ask tough questions and has needlessly put lives at risk.”

In the 1990s Rosekind headed a NASA program designed to identify and prevent physical and mental fatigue among pilots.  After leaving NASA, he formed a private fatigue-management firm, and has served on the National Transportation Safety Board since 2010.

Executive director of the Center for Auto Safety Clarence Ditlow has raised questions about Rosekind’s resume.  In an interview with Reuters, Ditlow said of the nominee, “I would have expected someone with more of a hands-on experience in vehicle safety.”  However, former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook, who served during the Carter administration, has called Rosekind “an excellent choice.”  Claybrook, an outspoken critic of the agency, says Rosekind “understands regulation and law enforcement, both of which are critical as the leader of NHTSA.”

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