Feds promise 'muscular' auto enforcement after recalls

Feds promise 'muscular' auto enforcement after recalls
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The Obama administration is promising more "muscular" enforcement of U.S. vehicle safety rules after a series of major recalls raised questions about federal oversight of the nation's auto industry. 

"There has been lots of talk in the last year about a tougher attitude and more aggressive enforcement at NHTSA. And no one should doubt that the president, [Transportation] Secretary [Anthony] Foxx or we at NHTSA will shy away from vigorous enforcement," National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind said in a speech at a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers on Wednesday. 

"The Secretary has asked for a more muscular NHTSA, and that is what we have provided," Rosekind continued. "DOT and NHTSA have asked Congress to strengthen our enforcement tools, and Congress has responded with some important changes." 

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Both automakers and highway safety regulators in the Obama administration have come under fire after widespread recalls began in 2014 at companies including General Motors and airbag manufacturer Takata that involved parts first found to be defective years before.

The issue of car safety is back in the spotlight after recent revelations that German automaker Volkswagen had been cheating federal pollution emission standards.

Critics have attributed the spike in recalls to lax oversight of the auto industry by the Obama administration. 

Rosekind said he is not content with auto regulation being "a cat-and-mouse game between regulator and regulated" when fines are doled out to car companies after infractions to little effect.

"The era of Big Recall is not a sign of progress for us," he said. "Record civil penalties are not a metric of success. If we’re levying a big fine, it means there has been a safety crisis. Americans have been put at risk. Too often, it means American lives have been lost. And NHTSA’s job is to save those lives, every one of them. As Secretary Foxx said last week, 'Real safety is finding and fixing defects before someone gets hurt, rather than just punishing after the damage is done.'" 

Rosekind promised to change the culture at the highway safety administration in his final year in office. 

"Success for NHTSA is a change in safety culture. It is building a culture that makes safety an essential element in every activity an organization undertakes," he said. 

"A proactive safety culture doesn’t avoid talk of problems. It certainly doesn’t conceal them," Rosekind continued. "A proactive safety culture seeks out problems, rewards those who identify them, and addresses them aggressively. A proactive safety culture infuses every part of an organization, from the lab to the test track to the factory floor to the C-suite." 

Rosekind touted a "historic" agreement between the transportation department and U.S. automakers on a set of principles for safety improvements and the Obama administration's pledge to spend $4 billion on testing self-driving cars that were announced last week.

The safety agreement calls for automakers to work together with federal regulators to achieve four goals: enhancing and facilitating "proactive safety," enhancing "analysis and examination of early warning reporting data," maximizing "safety recall participation rates" and enhancing "automotive cybersecurity." 

The money for automated vehicles in Obama's proposed budget for fiscal 2017, meanwhile, would be distributed by the highway safety administration for pilot programs that are being used to test the viability of self-driving cars. 

"The word 'historic' may be over-used, but I do not think it’s an overstatement when applied to the secretary’s Thursday announcement on vehicle automation and his Friday unveiling of a proactive safety agreement with major auto manufacturers," Rosekind said. 

"As the secretary said on Friday, we may look back years from now at this moment as the time when we joined together to change the way we all look at safety, for the better," he continued. "And we’re going to spend the next year working to ensure that we don’t look back this moment as a missed opportunity."