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Auto safety agency labors to keep pace

Critics say NHTSA has been slow to address problems. The watchdog says it's beefing up its staff.

December 31, 2009|By Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger
  • Richard and Carolyn Carlson outside their home in Lincoln, Neb. Carolyn Carlson became a quadriplegic after the couple's PT Cruiser spun into an embankment in 2005. They are seeking $10 million in damages from Chrysler.
Richard and Carolyn Carlson outside their home in Lincoln, Neb. Carolyn…

Richard and Carolyn Carlson were driving through rural Colorado in February 2005 when they hit a patch of black ice. Their Chrysler PT Cruiser spun backward into an embankment, causing the back of Carolyn's seat to collapse. She was hurled into the roof and partway through the rear window.

In an instant, Carolyn Carlson became a quadriplegic, and one of the thousands of Americans who suffer injuries, or death, each year in crashes in which car seats break.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has looked at forcing automakers to build stronger seats, first considering new rules in the early 1990s. But automakers objected, arguing that the matter needed more study, and in 2004 the agency formally shelved the issue.

The agency's handling of the seat-back regulation illustrates what has become a frequent criticism of NHTSA: that it is too slow to identify potential safety problems, and even slower to order potentially lifesaving fixes.

The agency has not ordered a mandatory recall since 1979. The largest fine it has ever issued was $1 million -- small change for automakers with billions of dollars in annual sales -- and it has not levied any such penalties against an automobile manufacturer since 2004.

NHTSA has come under a new spotlight in recent months amid its investigation of sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota and Lexus vehicles that led to the automaker's largest-ever recall.

After the problems surfaced, the agency said more motorists have died in Toyota vehicles associated with sudden acceleration in the last decade than in cars made by all other manufacturers combined.

Yet despite eight NHTSA investigations of sudden-acceleration problems involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles since 2003, the problem persisted -- ultimately leading to a massive, 4.3-million vehicle recall that the automaker initiated in hopes of finally putting the matter to rest.

Officials at both NHTSA and the Department of Transportation have rejected repeated requests from The Times for an interview to discuss the agency's operations. In a statement, NHTSA said safety was its No. 1 priority but acknowledged that "in past years, the agency has been short-staffed and is working to address this issue."

The agency said it was adding 20 full-time employees to help oversee auto safety, combat drunk and distracted driving, and persuade people to wear their seat belts.

An examination of NHTSA documents and actions, as well as interviews with former administrators and auto safety experts, paints a picture of an agency that has struggled to keep pace with the rapid technological changes in the industry it regulates.

NHTSA's budget for defect investigations and safety standards has shrunk in real terms for years, in a period when the number of models on the market multiplied, computer-driven electronics replaced mechanical functions and the auto industry was globalizing.

"Vehicles are much more complex, much more computerized," said Ricardo Martinez, who served for six years in the 1990s as NHTSA's administrator. "So, the question is, have the resources gone up to follow it? And the answer is no."

To its credit, NHTSA can point to a 13% drop in the rate of highway fatalities since 2005 -- thanks in part to reductions in drunk-driving crashes, increased seat-belt use and new safety features on vehicles, such as air bags.

Still, there were 37,261 highway deaths in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, dwarfing the number of deaths from any other form of transportation. Nearly three-quarters of NHTSA's $867-million annual budget goes to state grants, most of it for what agency insiders sometimes call "booze and belts" programs that promote seat-belt use and drunk-driving enforcement.

NHTSA's spending on everything else -- $241 million -- has stayed flat. In some crucial functions, such as investigations and rule making, the budget has dropped by more than half since 2001.

"The agency is woefully underfunded," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, who has long acted as a watchdog over the NHTSA. "It is an incredible disservice to the American public."

In terms of political importance, the agency seems to be in the back seat. Its new administrator, David Strickland, a longtime Senate committee staffer, was confirmed as the agency's 14th chief last week, nearly a year into the Obama administration.

Burst of zeal

NHTSA was conceived in the mid-1960s, in response to Ralph Nader's career-making exposé of the Chevrolet Corvair and defects in other autos in the book "Unsafe at Any Speed."

In its first few years, the agency imposed dozens of safety standards. But since that burst of activity, the agency's rule making has slowed amid stiff opposition from automakers and an anti-regulatory fervor in Washington.

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