- Joan Claybrook, the auto safety pioneer and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is calling for reforms in the wake of the GM ignition-switch recall.
- Claybrook said in a Detroit speech on Wednesday that stronger leadership in Washington, increased funding and more specific regulations are needed to ensure that NHTSA can do its job.
- Said Claybrook: "In the absence of a strong leader at NHTSA" it's up to legislators to mandate automotive safety.
DETROIT — Joan Claybrook, the auto safety pioneer and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is calling for reforms in the wake of the GM ignition-switch recall.
The defective ignition switches are linked to at least 13 fatalities and 31 crashes.
Stronger leadership in Washington, increased funding and more specific regulations are needed to ensure that NHTSA is able to work effectively in cases like the GM recall, Claybrook said in a speech at the Wayne State University Law School.
The former NHTSA chief made her remarks as GM CEO Mary Barra appeared before the U.S. Congress for her second day of questioning about the recall of 2.5 million vehicles, including the 2005-'10 Chevrolet Cobalt, due to defective ignition switches.
"The issues raised in the hearing were tough but fair," Barra said in a statement following testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance. "I appreciate the intense interest by the senators to fully understand what happened and why. I am going to accomplish exactly that, and we will keep Congress informed. Meanwhile, we will continue doing all we can to repair our customers' vehicles and rebuild their trust in GM."
Claybrook compared the GM recall to Toyota's recall of more than 10 million vehicles as a result of sudden unintended acceleration. She said: "The Toyota issue was complicated. This isn't. This is simple."
The Toyota situation involved poorly designed floor mats, "sticky accelerators" and a hard-to-diagnose "electronic defect in its engine system," while the GM recall is the result of "a $2 to $5 part," Claybrook said.
Characterizing the current NHTSA leadership as "weak," the former head of the agency said: "You have to have somebody running that office who really believes in enforcing the law."
Claybrook called the agency's annual budget, at $135 million, "barely enough for NHTSA to do its job." She noted that, allowing for inflation, the budget under her leadership, from 1977-'81, was "probably double or triple what it is now."
Claybrook also took issue with the way some federal regulations are written, saying that defective parts, some of which might affect safety, can get into production even though an automaker has followed the letter of the law. She said: "More specificity is needed to ensure compliance."
But, said Claybrook, "in the absence of a strong leader at NHTSA, federal legislation can make some difference with command requirements and statutory deadlines." She cited such government mandates as airbags, head-injury protection and rollover testing as examples of ways that Congress has made a difference.
She also noted that "competition and technological innovation" are helping make vehicles safer as manufacturers and suppliers work together to get the latest ideas into development, even before the government steps in. Examples she gave include back-up cameras, systems that warn drivers of obstacles and anticipatory braking systems.
Regarding GM's current ignition-switch recall, Claybrook concluded: "Mary Barra has a great opportunity to change the company. She has more power than perhaps any CEO in history to effect change and cut through bureaucracy."
Edmunds says: Joan Claybrook's remarks come at a time when much more of the GM recall story is sure to be revealed.