WASHINGTON – The U.S government’s top safety cop says record recall numbers from auto makers in recent years are the result of both the threat of costly fines and heightened communication between the regulators and manufacturers.

“It has been not only the bully pulpit but, frankly, policy leadership and more open communication with the manufacturers,” says David Strickland, lead administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.

“The manufacturers have responded,” Strickland tells WardsAuto on the sidelines of the annual Society of Automotive Engineers Government/Industry meeting held here in conjunction with the Washington auto show.

U.S. auto makers last year issued 146 recall campaigns, marking a 5-year high, according to a WardsAuto analysis of NHTSA data.

The heightened recall activity comes on the heels of the Toyota scandal involving sticky accelerator pedals and poor-fitting floor mats dating back to 2008. The auto maker’s handling of the problem led to more than $66 million in civil fines from NHTSA.

Toyota most recently decided to pay at least $1.1 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit related to the scandal.

“We have always worked hard to make sure manufacturers recognize their responsibility and get the recalls out as quickly as possible,” Strickland says. “Everyone recognizes in this environment that everybody benefits by having the customers assured of the safest vehicle possible.”

At one point during the government’s examination of Toyota in 2010, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood went so far as to warn Toyota owners not to drive their cars. He later recanted the statement. The scandal also led to a broad examination by regulators of all auto makers’ electronic throttle controls. Toyota has always maintained its controls are safe.

NHTSA also drew fire from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and LaHood, who last week announced he would leave the Obama Admin. later this year, was summoned before a congressional committee to defend the agency’s record.

The swirl of negative news has led to regular meetings between Toyota and NHTSA.

“The meetings we are having with Toyota are to make sure there are no gaps in communication,” Strickland says today. “That was one of the things we saw: Our scanning activity and their scanning activity found different things, and Toyota recognized that.”

Strickland says LaHood’s activism on sudden acceleration also has resulted in regular meetings with other auto makers, although they are voluntary while the Toyota briefings were mandated as part of the NHTSA penalties.

Strickland also credits LaHood with leading the charge against distracted driving. He says NHTSA guidelines for auto makers on the issue will come “very soon,” but stops short of providing a precise timetable. Speculation is they could arrive before LaHood leaves office in the coming weeks.

“We work on getting guidelines and rules out in the appropriate time,” Strickland says. “We ring the bell when the rule or guideline is ready.”

Auto makers already collaborate on rules outlining how to safely integrate new features consumers demand, such as smartphones in vehicles and the advanced infotainment systems coming to cars and trucks.

Strickland says NHTSA’s supervison will contain some differences with the industry but does not elaborate. He also says a new rule-making will come soon on rear cameras, a mandate the agency tabled last year in favor of more research.

The headlines inside the Beltway here this morning focus on another budget showdown between Republicans and Democrats. Known as sequestering, the cuts portend across-the-board belt-tightening at federal agencies, potentially including NHTSA.

“We’re going through the budgetary process right now,” Strickland says. “Bottom line is safety is our No.1 priority. We will always have our mission focused on the resources that we have to get the job done.”

Looking ahead, he says distracted driving, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication (V2I) and the implementation of corporate average fuel economy rules will be the agency’s priorities over the next four years.

Strickland expects a national campaign on distracted driving, targeting enforcement and education, will break as soon as the agency finishes collecting data from state-level initiatives currently under way in California and Delaware.

V2I could reduce the number of crashes not additionally affected by substance abuse by up to 80%. “It is the keys to the kingdom,” he says of the technology.

Strickland calls implementation of CAFE rules, hitting 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) in 2016 and possibly 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) by 2025 if the rule-making survives a congressional midterm examination, one of the greatest achievements of the industry and regulators.

As a young staffer during previous CAFE debates with the industry, he recalls “miserable defeats on the Senate floor.” Today, Strickland leads NHTSA during the implementation of the CAFE hikes. “It is a dream scenario.”

jamend@wardsauto.com