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NHTSA chief: Does agency have authority over automakers?

The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pondered whether his agency has the sort of reach it needs to adequately enforce the modern automobile industry as he testified Thursday before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

But "that answer is still being worked on," said David Strickland, who took the job of NHTSA administrator in December. Despite recent problems, Strickland said in defending his agency's track record, the number of car-related deaths on roads in this country are at their lowest since 1954.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) had sharp remarks and questions for the agency, which he characterized as having a “sluggish” response to concerns about Toyota cars. Dingell asked rhetorically whether this was the result of lack of authority or ineptitude. “It appears that the latter is more persuasive,” he said.
But the sharpest comments, as of an hour into the hearing, came from Joan Claybrook, an NHTSA administrator under President Jimmy Carter who said in prepared testimony that the automobile industry has viewed the agency "as a lapdog, not a watchdog."

Claybrook criticized the agency for being too secretive and for having ineffective penalties at its disposal. What's more, "their Web site is a mess," she said.

-- Mike Musgrove

By Multiplatform Editor  |  March 11, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
 | Tags: auto industry, consumer protection, david strickland, nhtsa  
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