David Friedman, the acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, testified in April before a U.S. Senate committee about the defective ignition switches and airbags now suspected of causing at least 30 deaths and the recall of 2 million vehicles.
Friedman might as well have sent a potted plant to field questions from the senators.
When Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asked Friedman if his agency had the authority to access sealed records tied to litigation and settlements related to safety defects, Friedman indicated he didn’t know. But he said he suspected his agency did not have the right to access such records.
“You can subpoena, right?” McCaskill asked.
Friedman checked with his staff, sitting behind him in the hearing room, and then replied. “Yes,” he said.
“OK, that worries me you didn’t know,” McCaskill said.
“It worries me as well,” Friedman acknowledged.
Friedman was called back to the committee in September where he faced another round of harsh criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. The senators noted that when auto manufacturers refused to turn over fatality records requested by the NHTSA, the federal agency took the path of least resistance and simply let the matter slide, refusing to exercise its legal right to see the documents.
McCaskill told Friedman it appeared the NHTSA was “more interested in singing ‘Kumbaya’ with car manufacturers than being a cop on the beat.”
It’s not clear what qualifies Friedman to run an agency charged with ensuring automobile safety. He is an alternative-fuels expert, having spent the previous 12 years working for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.
But Friedman’s personal lack of knowledge as to how his agency works isn’t as alarming as a recent report from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which details longstanding, systemic problems in the way the NHTSA has handled complaints pertaining to faulty ignition switches and airbag failures.
The 45-page report suggests that a major factor in the agency’s failure to protect the public is that NHTSA investigators lack “a fundamental understanding of how advanced airbag systems function.”
There’s no question that General Motors is largely to blame for the ignition switch scandal. The company now admits it spent almost 10 years hiding known safety risks from the public and from regulators — 10 years in which dozens of people were injured or killed.
But this is hardly the first time that a corporation put the public at risk in order to minimize its liability and protect shareholders’ investment. It won’t be the last time, either. That’s why government regulators like the NHTSA exist.
For 10 months, NHTSA has operated without a full-time director. David Strickland, the last man to hold the job, left the agency to work for a law firm that represents Chrysler. Three of his predecessors at NHTSA followed that same path to auto industry defender.
The Obama administration needs to get in gear and name a new director who has a strong background in consumer advocacy and who doesn’t see the job as a mere stepping stone to a more lucrative job in Detroit.