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Is NHTSA Underfunded in DOT’s $79 Billion Budget?

NHTSA’s safety competence is under Congressional scrutiny.

by on Mar.10, 2010

NHTSA has 125 engineers working on auto safety. Only five are electrical engineers, and one other – one -- is a software engineer.

A House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection tomorrow will hold a hearing called, “NHTSA Oversight: The Road Ahead,” to examine the effectiveness of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in protecting you and your loved ones.

At stake, are how your tax dollars are spent, what they are spent on, and ultimately whether our safety agency is doing its job, as specified by the laws your representatives wrote.

This has the potential become an ugly, politically charged session, as Republicans try to defend their non-regulatory record, while the Democrats try to defend their special interest funding in its DOT budget. (It appears to independent me, though, that there is more than enough blame that can be spread on both sides of the aisle. And for some more background and disclosure, see Eisenstein’s and Zino’s editorial on the problems at NHTSA -  Click Here. )

If you look beyond the posturing of incumbent politicians running for re-election at a time when voters are clearly fed up, a core issue emerges – is NHTSA properly staffed and budgeted?

Here is a thought starter:

Motor vehicles are responsible for 95% of the nation’s transportation deaths but only 1% of the Transportation budget. Surely, this needs some discussion and debate.

Towards that end – at least in theory- the House committee will look at what has happened at the Department of Transportation (DOT), which governs NHTSA, since the infamous Ford-Firestone tire recall. That tragedy, with its resulting hundreds of deaths, led to the setting up of a warning system so similar deadly safety issues would not recur.

The mechanism to do  this, so-called TREAD Act,  was passed in 2000. In it Congress required NHTSA to institute  an Early Warning Reporting System – EWR, ultimately named ARTREMIS by NHTSA, among other safety reforms.

In addition, the TREAD Act authorized NHTSA to seek civil penalties of up to $5,000 per motor vehicle per day, with a maximum penalty of $15 million for all related violations, in the event that an auto manufacturer fails or refuses to comply with a NHTSA regulation.

The law also authorized criminal penalties for falsifying or withholding information with the intent to mislead the agency about a safety defect that has caused death or serious bodily injury.

In February 2010, NHTSA launched an inquiry to examine whether civil penalties would be appropriate in connection to the Toyota recall. The possiblity of criminal penalties remains open.

NHTSA’s Toyota Performance Lacking?

The House committee will concentrate on the safety agency’s performance in ongoing Toyota “sticking pedal” and unintended acceleration incidents. Here, more than 60 deaths and 38 serious injuries are now, alleged, to have occurred because of defects in Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Moreover, the reported accidents and incidents are continuing. So there is an argument that NHTSA failed to perform its watchdog duties.

Critics contend that ten years of flat budgets or “stagnation” – most of them under Republican rule – have stripped the agency of its ability to function effectively and the Tread Act provisions have, as a result, been ignored in ways that led to the Toyota tragedy.

The agency sure looks to be understaffed: NHTSA currently has 125 engineers working on auto safety, but only five are electrical engineers, and one other is a software engineer– that is right, one. (Click Here.)

Since this half a dozen seems a shockingly small number – at least to me – to oversee the safety of motor vehicles where automotive electronics are now pervasive, an “allocation of resources” debate at DOT is emerging among safety advocates. The debate will be in full view tomorrow.

It seems clear to me that DOT needs to reorganize around things that matter to voters, not special interests who are benefiting from pork – more than 70% of NHTSA’s budget is dedicated to highway safety grants to states and localities. In other words, some “bringing home the bacon” things that politicians can talk about.

During the three Congressional hearings on Toyota, tough questions were raised about whether NHTSA has the resources and the technical capability to conduct in-depth investigations into new and complex systems in vehicles, and to evaluate manufacturer’s claims about the operations of the vehicles on sale.

NHTSA’s Budget

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Critical Thinking!

NHTSA’s vehicle safety work is contained within the budget for “Operations and Research.” (Click Here.)  NHTSA’s fiscal year 2011 budget request for this is $238.3 million- about $5 million lower than the FY 2010 request. Operations and research encompasses all vehicle safety work, and all of the NHTSA’s data collection and highway safety research. Much of the highway safety research is used to in the form of behavioral grants to states and localities, such as research into drunk driving, distracted driving, and seatbelt use.  And in spite of NHTSA’s assertion that 6,000 deaths were caused last year by distracted driving, nothing by way of regulation has been done to stop its number one cause – cell phone use. (more…)