Final Inspection

Small Budget, Thin Skin Roadblocking Agency, Former NHTSA Head Says


Former U.S. safety chief Joan Claybrook says agency administrators “have to act like a cop on the beat,” but too often those at the top have been unwilling to wield the billy club.

Is NHTSA tough enough?

Not according to Joan Claybrook, a one-time Ralph Nader protégé who headed the U.S. vehicle safety agency from 1977 until 1981 and now works as a consumer advocate in her position as president-emeritus of watchdog group Public Citizen.

In Detroit to talk to Wayne State University Law School students this week, Claybrook, labeled the Dragon Lady 30 years ago by auto-industry insiders forced to square off against her over safety issues, says the ongoing General Motors ignition-switch recall scandal has put the spotlight on NHTSA’s own defects: mainly lack of leadership, funding and legislative teeth.

“You have to act like a cop on the beat,” she says of the role of NHTSA administrator, but without naming names says those at the top of the safety agency too often have been unwilling to wield the billy club.

“Look, people are going to hate you,” Claybrook says. “GM hates me. I was nicknamed the Dragon Lady. That’s OK, I didn’t mind.”

In her view, the government job isn’t much different from the consumer advocate role she plays, where she takes it as “a badge of honor when the Wall Street Journal criticizes you in 27 editorials, as they did to me.

“You have to be tough, able to withstand endless pressures to cut deals or concede,” Claybrook says in her presentation to law students. “You need a little armor when you challenge an industry with a higher GNP than 90% of the countries in the world.”

She calls U.S. automotive safety enforcement “a roller-coaster ride of strong and weak federal administrators, who not infrequently have left office by the time a big problem that occurred on their watch is discovered.”

In addition to weak leadership, tight budgets and lack of staffing likely contributed to NHTSA’s two-time failure to pull the trigger on an investigation of Chevy Cobalts and other models with the defective switches over the past decade, she says.

Claybrook points to current staffing of about 600 people and overall budget of $134 million, saying NHTSA employed 900 in her day and oversaw a budget “at least double or triple” that amount.

“That’s nothing. It’s inadequate,” she says of the current resources.

In addition, Claybrook says, limits on fines, now capped at $32 million, need to be removed, characterizing the amount “petty cash to a multinational company.”

And she wants to see the Department of Justice empowered to put executives in jail if they fail to recall a vehicle they know to be a safety threat.

“Only that step may finally stop the cover-ups and deception about defective vehicles that kill and injure.”

Claybrook also is anxious for a re-treading of the TREAD (Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation) Act, passed in 2000 following the Ford-Firestone tire-recall fiasco.

In part, the act requires automakers to provide a quarterly early-warning report on all claims concerning deaths or injuries involving one of their vehicles, but the one-time NHTSA head wants to see even more transparency from both the auto companies and the safety agency about potential problems.

She also calls on NHTSA to be more proactive in searching out defects data by soliciting input from consumers and contracting independent repair shops to alert the agency when they see trends related to parts failures – practices under her administration.

The more the government can mine its own sources, rather than rely on automakers to come clean on potential safety problems, the better NHTSA will be positioned to joust with these industrial giants, she contends.

After all, once in a while, you have to breathe a little fire.

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What's Final Inspection?

WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.


David E. Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

James M. Amend

James Amend is an associate editor at, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
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