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Celebrating Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act’s first anniversary

In December 2015, Congress delivered a holiday gift to American motorists: the promise of safer roads.  Mindful that auto safety is a bipartisan business, Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida teamed up to enact the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act, which offers monetary rewards to auto-industry insiders who report serious safety violations.  For Congress, an endless stream of auto-safety scandals—with GM’s faulty ignition switches, Takata’s shrapnel-spraying airbags, and Toyota’s sticky gas pedals chief among them—put into sharp relief the need to encourage insiders to bring forward information to help avert the next disaster.  Yet one year later, safety advocates are still waiting to see if federal regulators will make good on Congress’s commitment to give whistleblowers a central role in the agency’s enforcement efforts.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act allows employees or contractors of a motor-vehicle manufacturer, parts supplier, or dealership who report serious violations of federal vehicle-safety laws to get from 10 percent to 30 percent of any monetary sanction over $1 million that the government recovers based on that information. Whistleblowers can expose any violation—even ones that occurred before the program’s creation—that originated anywhere in the world, as long as the vehicles or components at issue were sold in the U.S. What’s more, would-be whistleblowers are protected from employer retaliation and can remain anonymous.

{mosads}The whistleblower program is a paradigm shift in safety enforcement for safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  By deputizing insiders to be their eyes and ears, regulators can obtain more and better information than ever before.

Yet in spite of Congress’s insistence that whistleblowers play a key role in enforcement efforts, NHTSA has neither publicized the program nor begun the process to develop its rules. With a deadline to finalize its regulations just six months away, the decisions NHTSA makes in the rulemaking process will determine the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act’s success. NHTSA’s challenge will be to ensure its rules reflect Congress’s intent to deter corporate misconduct, not the whistleblowers trying to report it.

At a broader level, NHTSA will need to embrace whistleblowers. To paraphrase Sen. Charles Grassley, one of the most steadfast supporters of whistleblowers in Congress, regulators can’t treat whistleblowers like skunks at a picnic. NHTSA must recognize that whistleblowers function as force multipliers that make the agency more effective.  Rolling out the welcome mat also means creating a dedicated office to interface with whistleblowers, as every other federal agency with a whistleblower-reward program has done. NHTSA will also have to staff up to evaluate more whistleblower submissions than it has ever received.  Making the new program work will take resources and open arms.

Few doubt that whistleblower-reward programs are immensely valuable in bringing wrongdoing to light. For the first time, auto-industry insiders have strong tools to expose safety violations that manufacturers would rather hide. Now, all eyes are on NHTSA to ensure the program’s success.  For the nation’s motorists, the auto-safety scandals of the recent past show the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Ari Yampolsky is an attorney in the San Francisco office of Constantine Cannon, specializing in the areas of fraud and whistleblower law.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Bill Nelson Charles Grassley John Thune

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