WASHINGTON—Thanks to the Firestone recall, "a new day has dawned" at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to the agency's new administrator.
"The clock will not be turned back, regardless of (the results of) the election," said Sue Bailey at a Nov. 14 meeting of the Washington Automotive Press Association.
Ms. Bailey, appointed by President Clinton in August, may soon be out of a job, particularly if Texas Gov. George W. Bush is declared president. But the mandate of the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act—passed by Congress and recently signed by Mr. Clinton in the wake of the recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires—is clear and direct, she said.
"We wanted two things above all out of that bill: the ability to find documentation of claims, and the ability to obtain information on foreign recalls of products used in America," she said. "We got both of those things."
News reports of the Firestone recall "captured the attention of the public in a way few things could," Ms. Bailey said. From a situation where "people didn't think at all about their tire pressure for two years, or maybe when they went on a trip," public awareness of tire safety has grown to the point where "public demand will drive design, and drive safe design," she said.
Before the media reports started, NHTSA knew of 21 insurance claims on Firestone tires reported over seven years and had 46 complaints on file about the tires, including reports of two deaths.
The TREAD Act gives the agency the tools it needs to obtain information about possible tire and auto defects faster and more easily, she added. "Had we had the data they (Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.) had, we would have had an investigation years sooner, and we would have had a recall not nearly so damaging to the company," she said.
But Ms. Bailey was far from condemnatory of the tire maker. She praised BFS and its CEO, John T. Lampe, for "a phenomenal effort on their part" in replacing the recalled tires. The replacement effort had just passed the 5 million mark, she added.
Among other things, the TREAD Act mandates establishment of rules requiring vehicle rollover ratings and dashboard sensors for tire pressure, as well as directing NHTSA to rewrite the 32-year-old passenger tire safety standard.
The agency is in good shape with the tire standard because much of the preliminary work has been done, Ms. Bailey said. The Rubber Manufacturers Association petitioned NHTSA in January 1999 with Global Tire Standard-2000, a model for a new passenger tire standard based on the international tire industry's work under the aegis of the Transatlantic Business Dialogue, and the agency granted the rulemaking petition in June 1999.
"We won't have to go back to the drawing board on this," she said, adding that the final rule isn't due until June 2002.
Testing tires under extreme conditions already is well-established at NHTSA, Ms. Bailey said. "We've tested tires at 30 and 26 psi, at 75 and 85 mph, at 95 degrees Fahrenheit," she said. "The tire testing itself is not way off. What is off is what do we do with old tires. It's hard to figure out an accurate way of aging tires to approximate real-world experience. That's one of the things that's missing."
Ms. Bailey, a medical doctor and former assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, officially assumed her duties at NHTSA just after the Firestone recall began. Less than a month later, she had to appear before Congress to answer harsh questions about why the agency hadn't started investigating the Firestone tires sooner.
"Have you ever had the dream in which you never read the text and skipped all the classes, but still have to take the test?" she asked. "That's exactly what those hearings were like."
Nevertheless, she added, her staff at the agency was able to bring her up to speed on agency issues in time for the hearings.
About her job at NHTSA, Ms. Bailey said there was "a certain amount of carryover" between it and her position at the Department of Defense.
"At the Defense Department, we were charged with `force help protection'—protecting the forces when they're in harm's way," she said. "Well, you are in harm's way every time you get in your automobile and hurtle through time and space at speeds unimaginable to your grandparents."