During recent Capitol Hill testimony, interim National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head David Friedman said that a “new normal” is needed when it comes to auto recalls. Friedman’s agency was heavily criticized recently for its handling of the GM recall.
Friedman admits change is needed within the NHTSA. “Any life lost is one too many; anything that we can do to improve in a situation like this, we’ve got to do,” he said. Friedman is developing a program that will keep automakers “on their toes” with heavy penalties paid for shortcomings. “Dropping the ball will not be tolerated,” Friedman says.
Criticized for taking too long to call for GM accountability, the NHTSA is looking at expanding its powers. Currently the agency can only fine a maximum of $35 million and cannot bring criminal charges against automakers. Friedman believes change must happen now, and others agree.
Center for Automotive Safety director Clarence Ditlow said recently, “This is the best opportunity to reform NHTSA, really, since the original Safety Act was passed in 1966. When a GM president has to apologize for their safety inaction, that shows you how bad the situation is.”
Safety advocates and Congress members all agree that reform must be extensive. The NHTSA needs expanded enforcement power, increased funding and increased transparency, making the agency accountable to the American people.
In 2014, only $10 million was granted to the agency to investigate safety defects. It spends around $130 million each year on safety research. Safety advocate Ralph Nader, angered by the amount, puts it in perspective this way, saying, “It’s about the cost of three months of guarding the US embassy in Baghdad.”
Friedman said, “If congress would give us another twenty people and $20 million, we could do a lot more for the American public to save lives.”
Safety advocates say the NHTSA needs more authority, pointing out that the $35 million maximum is a drop in the bucket for the auto industry, which pulls in billions annually. President Obama, transportation secretary Anthony Foxx, Friedman and others want to raise the maximum fine to $300 million.
Congressional approval will be needed for any expansion of funding or authority. Legislative proposals already introduced may hit roadblocks on Capitol Hill. Friedman says the NHTSA is committed to improving, congressional gridlock or not. He said, “If Congress fails to act, we’re a scrappy organization. We punch above our weight. We’ll do everything with the resources we can.”