The Impact of Cronyism upon Highway Safety and the Environment

Mark Rosekind, new administrator of the NHTSA, will have his hands full trying to combat a revolving-door situation between NHTSA staff and industry officials. These two groups have been trading places, with expected results of non-action with regard to vehicle safety and improved gas mileage efforts.

Attrition of seasoned officials at the NHTSA into the auto industry is a problem with the highest negative impact as these people move into jobs at the very industries they were supposed to be watchdogs over. The other side of this problem is movement by former auto execs who are taking over those vacant jobs at NHTSA.

Officials are Trading Places

According to Department of Transportation reports, between 1984 and 2010, 40 officials left NHTSA to work instead for the automakers, their law firms or consultants. From 1999 through 2010, 23 auto industry executives made the opposite change, to work for NHTSA. This is a little like letting the mouse control the cat’s freedom; not much gets accomplished.

Changes also occurred at the topmost level as well, when former NHTSA head David Strickland resigned to work instead for a law firm that represents an auto makers’ trade group. This December 2014 move coincided with a settlement by one of the group’s members with NHTSA. Strickland was a primary author of recently implemented strong auto-mileage and emission standards.

The Revolving Door Conundrum

This revolving door situation has some wondering if NHTSA officials are compromising safety and our intent to fight global warming in favor of gaining lucrative positions in private industry, in particular the automotive manufacturing industry. How can NHTSA administrators be tough enough against the manufacturers they wish to court for employment? On the other side of that revolving door are the industry officials who take jobs with NHTSA and try to lessen its effectiveness against their former employers.

Over the past decade, many vehicle safety issues affected the public, including 265 deaths from defective ignitions produced by General Motors. Other defects causing injury and fatalities included faulty air bags, sudden acceleration and fuel-system failures. On environmental issues, NHTSA has not significantly strengthened gas mileage standards or tailpipe emissions in over 18 years. This did nothing to reduce carbon emissions into our atmosphere or lower the country’s ties to oil.

What Needs to Happen?

Under current rules, nothing prohibits ex-federal officials from trying to influence their former agency for two years. Those officials who left NHTSA are slightly restricted from attempting to protect their new industry pals from NHTSA regulations. Part of the problem with these executive job switches is that all those officials possess insider or privileged knowledge. This alone can influence the competitive sphere and encourage friendships between connections to prosper. To offset this, it has been suggested that the cooling off period of non-competition for jobs be extended to at least five years.

Some progress is slowly taking effect. For over three decades from 1979, no recalls were issued by the agency. Fines levied by NHTSA, until 2004, were unreasonably low, considering the wealth of the multibillion dollar auto industry. Finally, there were over 50 million recalls last year, and much higher penalties, like the $70 million one against Honda for failure to report fatal accidents. Congress and the President forced the industry to meet improved gas mileage standards in 2007 and 2009.

Today, the agency works with the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, a primary pollutant and suspected cause of climate change. New programs to reduce auto emissions are expected to result in a new-car fleet that averages 54.5 miles per gallon by the year 2025. This is the biggest protective step that any nation has attempted in the fight against global warming.

Winning the Fight

A major effort is needed to reform NHTSA in view of the apparent conflict of interest when officials trade jobs with industry officials. These officials and their subtle manipulations weaken any efforts by NHTSA staff to enforce rules or create new, tougher regulations to protect consumer safety and the environment.

According to an opinion piece in USA TODAY, some former NHTSA officials are cited as working within other groups or industry giants to override or fight NHTSA orders.

  • Diane Steed, who left the agency in 1989, now works against tougher mileage standards through her group, Coalition for Vehicle Choice.
  • Former general counsel for Chrysler, Jacqueline Glassman, became a top lawyer for NHTSA, but subsequently left to work at a major Washington law firm that represents at least 11 automakers and is an industry lobbying group.
  • Takata Corp., the manufacturer who supplied 10 carmakers with air bags that were defective and caused several deaths when the bags exploded, hired Kenneth Weinstein, a former NHTSA associate administrator. His new job with Takata Corp. is directed towards reducing costs to that company by limiting recalls to only specific geographic areas.

Any reforms at NHTSA will go up against these problems, so Mark Rosekind, the new administrator, must be vigilant and persistent to win this challenge as he works to make the agency again do its job. His first move was to warn automakers to again focus on safety and gas mileage improvements.