Obama nominee for auto safety chief will have to rescue understaffed, underfunded agency

Markets Associated Press

Mark Rosekind is a nationally known expert in human fatigue. He may soon inherit a government agency that's been criticized for being asleep at the wheel.

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President Obama on Wednesday nominated Rosekind, a National Transportation Safety Board member and a former NASA scientist with a Ph.D from Yale, to be the U.S. government's top auto safety regulator, pending Senate confirmation.

Rosekind has several years of safety experience, and helped to investigate seven major transportation accidents. Now he'll step into the leadership of The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a neglected but critically important agency that is widely considered to be understaffed and underfunded. And, due to two prominent recent safety crises, it's considered too slow to move and too cozy with the car companies it regulates.

The agency has been without a permanent administrator for nearly a year, and during that time, has been vilified by lawmakers for its tardy reaction to a deadly ignition switch problem at General Motors dating back a decade and problems with air bags made by Takata Corp. that the agency also knew about for years.

It's also become clear that the agency's staff lacks expertise in complex car systems such as ignitions and air bags. Lawmakers are now worried the regulators haven't kept pace as the auto industry moves toward an even more sophisticated technology: the self-driving car.

"That's a real concern, whether they have the folks with the technical skills to understand what was being presented to them in a way that would prevent traffic deaths and accidents," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

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One thing is certain: Rosekind, 59, will have to move quickly. With only two years remaining for the Obama administration, there's no time to waste in fixing a litany of problems. Here are some of the challenges:

TOO SLOW: The agency failed to take action despite mounting clues of defects with the GM ignition switches and Takata air bags. With GM, it missed consumer complaints about engine stalling and failed to link air bag failures to the faulty switches. At least 33 people died. Takata's air bags, sold to at least 10 automakers, can explode with too much force, hurling metal shrapnel into passengers. Even though deaths and injuries were reported as early as 2008, NHTSA let automakers do a series of small recalls. It didn't open a full investigation until last June and only recently became aggressive in seeking nationwide recalls.

TOO SMALL, NO MONEY: The agency's Office of Defects Investigation has only 50 investigators and the same $10 million budget it had a decade ago. GM itself has more investigators: 60. Bills have been introduced to double the $134 million the agency spends per year on safety research, testing and enforcement. "It seems to be very plain and very obvious that the Office of Defects Investigation is woefully understaffed," says Allan Kam, a former NHTSA enforcement attorney. The lack of resources, he says, forces the agency to perform triage. The agency also has a problem attracting and keeping engineers, who can make 40 percent more money working for an automaker, says David Kelly, NHTSA's chief of staff and acting administrator under President George W. Bush.

TOO COZY: Early in 2005, engineers, lawyers and safety officials at GM prepared for a meeting with NHTSA. On the agenda: Improve communication before the agency opens an investigation. The chummy itinerary was among multiple documents released by lawmakers that showed a cozy relationship with GM. Lawmakers say the agency is too reliant on automakers for expertise on complex equipment. The relationship "has created a failure to ask tough questions and has needlessly put lives at risk," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

MINIMAL TRAINING: House investigators found that because of a small training budget, the lead investigator on the GM case hadn't been to a paid training course in six to eight years.

NO TEETH: If automakers find evidence of a safety defect, they must report it to NHTSA within five working days of the discovery. But NHTSA can only fine them $35 million if they don't, a fraction of what a major automaker earns. The Obama administration wants a max of $300 million.

NHTSA officials, including Deputy Administrator David Friedman, who has acted as agency chief since December, say the agency has been hamstrung at times by lack of cooperation from the automakers. Since the GM crisis erupted earlier this year, there are signs that the agency has changed, mainly that more than 50 million vehicles have been recalled this year, a record.

"The goal here is to improve safety, get defective vehicles off the road," Kelly says.