By Ryan Beene, Crain News Service
WASHINGTON (June 29, 2015) — NHTSA head Mark Rosekind's honeymoon is over.
In previous congressional hearings on auto safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) shortcomings in major defect cases were largely cast as the result of corporate deception and a lack of agency resources.
But a yearlong audit released last week by the U.S. Transportation Department's (DOT) inspector general zeroed in on NHTSA's own failures, and made clear that its problems go much deeper than funding.
It also added pressure on Mr. Rosekind, NHTSA's administrator since December, to push through significant reforms to justify the additional funds and powers he has sought for the agency.
The pressure comes as NHTSA mobilizes for one of the most complex automotive recalls in history to replace faulty Takata airbags in some 32 million vehicles, and prepares for a July 2 face-off against Fiat Chrysler over the company's safety record.
Mr. Rosekind appeared at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on auto safety last week alongside Calvin Scovel, the DOT's inspector general, who detailed a litany of failures by NHTSA over a decade in its handling of the General Motors Co. ignition-switch defect, which is now linked to at least 117 deaths and led to the recall of 8.7 million small cars.
Mr. Scovel told lawmakers he recognized the calls for more funding, but said: “Allocating more resources to an effort or to an agency whose processes aren't in line in the first place does not seem like a good idea.”
The senators seized on Mr. Scovel's audit report, which found the agency to be staffed with employees ill-trained for their jobs and haphazard in their handling of consumer complaints, a critical starting point for most safety defect investigations. Agency decisions on whether to open defect probes are poorly documented, the audit found, and guided by precedent and “gut feeling” rather than data and scientific protocol.