Recalls show safety watchdog knows how to bite
The US car safety watchdog, long criticised as toothless and slow, is showing both bark and bite under its new boss - a testimony to his credentials as a safety expert and a hardening of the administration's policy after a wave of deadly defects.
Having taken the helm of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in January, Mark Rosekind has wasted no time in forcing reluctant companies into recalling millions of defective vehicles. In doing so, he has shown greater willingness than some of his predecessors to use the US government's full legal powers over the industry, some for the first time.
In the past week alone, the agency announced the biggest recall in history, involving nearly 34m vehicles with potentially deadly Takata Corporation air bags. It also scheduled a rare public hearing to review Fiat Chrysler recalls involving 10m vehicles and warned of potential multiple penalties that could total $700m (€643m).
Mr Rosekind (60) took over the regulator after a bruising year of criticism from the public and Congress over failures to respond quickly to major safety crises. And he came with clear marching orders from Washington: take dangerous vehicles off US roads.
"We brought him in to bring it," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told Reuters in an interview.
"Having someone who personifies the kind of aggressiveness with which we expect the agency to operate is healthy for external stakeholders as well as our own folks at DOT (Department of Transportation) and NHTSA."
Current and former officials say recalls did not always serve as a top priority for earlier administrators.
For instance, David Kelly, who filled the job on an acting basis at the end of the George W Bush administration, focused on fuel economy.
During that administration, the agency's preferred approach was to address safety issues through voluntary service campaigns, though they were still outnumbered by recalls. Critics say a similar approach continued into President Barack Obama's administration.
"We finally have a NHTSA administrator who wants to be the cop on the beat," said Joan Claybrook, who led the agency in the 1970s.
Mr Rosekind declined to be interviewed for the story.
David Strickland, the last permanent NHTSA administrator who served between 2010 and 2013, told Reuters that Mr Rosekind was looking for new levers to bring change, just as past agency chiefs did.
The appointment of Rosekind, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, raised eyebrows because of his lack of a car industry background but was welcomed by safety advocates, who viewed his public safety expertise credentials as eclipsing those of many of his predecessors.
Mr Rosekind is a Stanford and Yale-educated expert who worked as a scientific consultant before joining the NTSB.