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Former NHTSA Chief Calls on Congress to Upgrade Standards; Increase Budget, Enforcement Authority of Auto Safety Agency

Sept. 6, 2000

Former NHTSA Chief Calls on Congress to Upgrade Standards; Increase Budget, Enforcement Authority of Auto Safety Agency

Ford, Firestone Covered Up Tire Defect

Read Joan Claybrook’s testimony

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The federal agency in charge of ensuring motor vehicle safety is hampered by weak enforcement authority, a lean budget and congressional interference in recall investigations, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook told members of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee during a hearing Wednesday on the Firestone tire recall. It also has failed to update or issue crucial safety standards that could have prevented deaths and injuries in the Ford and Firestone case.

Claybrook served as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1977 to 1981.

“Ford and Firestone covered up safety problems with the tire/SUV combination for almost a decade,” Claybrook testified. “Coverups will continue without corrective action by NHTSA.”

Claybrook noted that despite facing lawsuits from the victims of crashes linked to Firestone tire tread separation and resulting rollovers of Ford Explorers, the companies failed to notify NHTSA of the problem. The lawsuits were settled with gag orders that prevented attorneys or plaintiffs from disclosing information. The companies also remained silent about tire recalls in other countries and design changes made to tires and vehicles in Venezeula. She noted similarities between the current recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires and the 1978 recall of the Firestone 500 tire when she was head of NHTSA.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs additional legislative authority to assure that manufacturers obey the law, report safety defects and recall unsafe products,” Claybrook said.

Specifically, Claybrook called on Congress to: increase civil penalties for failure to recall a defective vehicle or part, or for withholding information from the agency; enact criminal penalties for knowing and willful refusal to recall a defective vehicle or withholding information that results in deaths and injuries; require companies to test products prior to certifying that they meet government standards; increase the statute of limitations for violations; require companies to notify NHTSA when they recall vehicles overseas; and beef up NHTSA s budget, especially for enforcement.

Claybrook said NHTSA failed to detect this tire defect, which has been linked to 88 deaths and 250 injuries in the U.S., because it lacks a proactive program to discover safety defects.

“NHTSA was caught flatfooted because it rarely pushes companies to obey the law,” she said, citing several examples of automakers refusing to issue recalls. “The auto manufacturers have rolled the dice and have usually won. This time they are the losers as the media spotlight forces the story of the sorry state of manufacturer compliance with the law and safety defect enforcement into the public consciousness.”

NHTSA should have an early warning system to detect defects, Claybrook said. The agency should routinely get information from auto repair shops, fleet owners, lawyers representing victims of defect-related crashes, insurance companies and from the companies themselves.

“NHTSA has not been the tough cop on the regulatory beat. When it is, companies are more safety-conscious, the public is protected and in the end it is less work for all parties. The Firestone/Ford case shows what happens when safety is not Job 1 in the companies or in the government.

“Essential safety standards are severely out of date, were scrapped or delayed in the Reagan years, or are prohibited by law because of industry lobbying.”

NHTSA s tire safety standard, for example, is 32 years old and is not fully effective for testing radial tires. The “roof crush” standard is 30 years old and does little to protect occupants during rollovers.

In addition, Congress in 1991 required NHTSA to conduct rulemaking on a rollover-prevention standard. The agency dropped the idea of enacting a safety standard and instead proposed a consumer information requirement. But the agency has been prevented by Congress from implementing that weak rule.