Consumer Fraud

Legislators seek sweeping overhaul of NHTSA

The recent Congressional hearings that took Toyota to task for the sudden unintended acceleration problems that trouble so many of its cars also exposed how ineffective the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has become in protecting American consumers from defective automobiles. Now a number of legislators are calling for an overhaul of the broken agency, saying it is woefully understaffed, underfunded, and much too complacent with the automakers it’s supposed to regulate.

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), whose family has been close friends with the Toyoda family for decades, is one of the lawmakers leading the charge to reform NHTSA.

“We know that something has gone terribly wrong. The system meant to safeguard against faulty vehicles has failed and it needs to be fixed immediately,” Rockefeller said in the Senate’s Toyota hearing.

“NHTSA did not fulfill its responsibility in the past and has more to do in the present, and needs greater resources and authority in the future. NHTSA’s actions and inactions in the years leading up to today are deeply troubling,” Rockefeller added.

To put the problem in perspective, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) noted that the number of cars on America’s roads has doubled since 1980 to 256 million, yet in the same period of time NHTSA’s staff has been slashed in half to 57 workers.

NHTSA’s 57 employees must respond to more than 30,000 consumer complaints and manage some 500 recall campaigns every year — on top of numerous other responsibilities.

Complicating matters further, some high-ranking Toyota executives are former NHTSA employees. Former NHTSA regulators Chris Tinto and Chris Santucci, who work in Toyota’s D.C. offices, helped stop at least four federal investigations into unintended acceleration. In doing so, they successfully helped Toyota fend off as many sudden-acceleration-related recalls.

To help bring NHTSA back in line with its purpose of protecting the American public from unsafe automobiles and hopefully avert another epic disaster like the Toyota recalls, Senator Rockefeller has joined Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) to draft legislation that would enhance NHTSA’s regulatory powers and authority.

Likely to make auto lobbyists descend on Washington in droves, the bills also seek to increase NHTSA staffing, require “black box” data recorders and brake override systems in all vehicles, and prohibit former NHTSA employees from working in the auto industry for at least 2 years after leaving federal employment.

Preliminary bills may be introduced to the House and Senate by the end of the month. Final legislation would likely take several months before becoming law.