After bruising safety crisis, U.S. car watchdog shows its bite

Sun May 24, 2015 9:24am EDT
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By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. auto safety watchdog, long criticized 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 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 34 million vehicles with potentially deadly Takata Corp (7312.T: Quote) air bags. It also scheduled a rare public hearing to review Fiat Chrysler (FCHA.MI: Quote) recalls involving 10 million vehicles and warned of potential multiple penalties that could total $700 million.

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 U.S. 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.   Continued...

Mark Rosekind testifies before a Senate committee hearing on his nomination to be administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this file photo taken December 3, 2014. Having taken the helm of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in January, Rosekind has wasted no time in forcing reluctant companies into recalling millions of defective vehicles. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/Files