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Senate Dems press Obama on highway safety pick

A group of Senate Democrats is pressing President Obama to appoint a National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator who will crack down on auto safety. 

Obama is expected to announce a nominee to lead the highway safety agency soon, which has come under fire for its oversight of widespread recalls at auto companies like General Motors, Toyota and Lexus earlier this year. 

The highway safety agency has been operating without a full-time chief since its former chief David Strickland resigned at the beginning of the year. 

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Sens. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyTech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump strips protections for Tongass forest, opening it to logging | Interior 'propaganda' video and tweets may violate ethics laws, experts say | Democrats see Green New Deal yielding gains despite GOP attacks Democrats see Green New Deal yielding gains despite GOP attacks MORE (D-Mass), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonSenate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Democrats sound alarm on possible election chaos Trump, facing trouble in Florida, goes all in MORE (D-Fla.) said in a letter to Obama Wednesday that he should use the NHTSA vacancy to boost the agency’s ability to regulate auto recalls. 

“We believe this is an opportunity to improve NHTSA’s safety mission by providing the agency with strong leadership and reforming some of its practices,” the senators wrote to Obama. “NHTSA must alter its practices to require automakers to publicly release more information about accidents that could be caused by safety defects, upgrade its own safety databases, and do a better job of enforcing compliance with transparency measures intended to provide early warnings about potentially dangerous defects to the public.”

Interim NHTSA Administrator David Friedman has been running the agency since Strickland resigned. 

Lawmakers took the agency to task in the spring for its handling of GM’s recall, which involved nearly 2 million vehicles. The agency was accused of failing to notice the trend of accidents involving GM's faulty ignition switch for several years, before the recall was issued in February.  

The Takata recall involves defective airbags that were used in cars manufactured by companies like Toyota, Lexus and Chrysler.  

The senators said Obama’s new Highway Safety pick should be empowered to act proactively to take defective cars off the road to prevent a repeat of this year’s widespread recall failures. 

“Despite the fact that the GM ignition switch defect has been linked to at least 32 deaths and more serious injuries, NHTSA allowed impacted cars to continue to be driven as long as drivers followed GM's warnings not to make the key chains too heavy,” they wrote. 

“And while Toyota has warned owners of some vehicles that contain passenger-side Takata airbags to disable them and cease allowing passengers to sit in the passenger seat until the airbags are repaired, NHTSA has not required other automakers that contain Takata airbags on the driver or passenger side to issue similar warnings,” the senators continued. “When a safety defect that could fatalities is identified, NHTSA should ensure that the owners of all potentially impacted vehicles are warned, that automakers are required to provide safe and free rental vehicles until the repairs are made, and, when the safety defect could harm the drive, that drivers are warned not to drive the cars at all.” 

The full letter can be read here.