The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received a brutal one-two punch from Congress this week for its response to the General Motors ignition-switch scandal.
By the end of the lengthy session, senators had painted the unflattering portrait of a toothless agency in disarray.
NHTSA was hammered in a 45-page House report, and then grilled by senators during a hearing on Capitol Hill. Both on paper and in person, legislators picked apart the agency's plodding, seemingly inept responses to GM, and questioned NHTSA's ability to serve as a watchdog for the auto industry, which has faced extensive recalls, fines and controversy in recent years.
Deputy administrator David Friedman, who's only been with NHTSA since 2013, had few answers when questioned on the hill, and by the end of the lengthy session, senators had painted the unflattering portrait of a toothless agency in disarray.
Yes, there was some grandstanding. But legislators, and Friedman's responses to their often-testy questions, illustrated a valuable point – NHTSA needs help. It needs more power, more people and more money to effectively regulate on of the most complex industries in the nation.
NHTSA's authority, or seeming lack thereof, came under repeated fire from senators. It can only fine automakers $35 million for safety violations, something a proposed bill seeks to change. Even Toyota's record $1.2-billion settlement with the US attorney's office in its unintended acceleration cases was technically for wire fraud. The bill, introduced in August by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), would also double NHTSA's funding for vehicle safety. If the legislation passes, auto executives could face prison sentences for delaying a recall, which would force companies to take NHTSA more seriously.
"We need more authority to fine the car companies so that they understand the heavy price that they are going to pay if they fail to report these things," Friedman said.
"We could use additional resources. More people, more money for better technology so that we can better sift through the information that's out here." – David Friedman
He also told senators he needs more resources, noting NHTSA doesn't have enough boots on the ground to handle the massive recalls it's faced in recent years.
NHTSA wants to increase its full-time workers to 637 for the 2015 fiscal year, (plus four employees whose salaries are reimbursed for their work on intelligent transportation). That's up 27 from this year, which would provide more muscle to sort through the extensive data that's sent to the agency by carmakers and the public.
To do this, NHTSA wants more money, and has asked the federal government to increase its budget to $851 million, up $32 million from the 2014 fiscal year.
"We could use additional resources," Friedman said. "More people, more money for better technology so that we can better sift through the information that's out here."
Speaking of resources, NHTSA needs an official boss. Technically, Friedman is the deputy administrator, even though he's in charge of the department. The former top administrator, David Strickland, left in January to work for a law firm that lobbies for the auto industry. He had been in charge since 2010. Friedman was named the acting head, then that title expired.
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