Are auto safety regulators asleep at the wheel?

The federal agency responsible for regulating vehicle safety and efficiency in the United States is frequently criticized for failing to take swift action on matters such as emissions reduction or dangerous vehicle defects. Now, some critics are pointing to a pattern of high turnover within the agency that they say hints at a deep-seated conflict of interest.

As reported recently by USA Today, 40 officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) left the agency between 1984 and 2010 in order to pursue careers in or closely linked to the automotive industry - the very industry that the NHTSA regulates. Furthermore, the exchange of workers between the regulator and the regulated appears to flow in both directions; between 1999 and 2010, a total of 23 executives from the vehicle industry landed top positions at the NHTSA.

Critics allege cronyism at NHTSA

When an official leaves a post at a federal agency, the law prohibits him or her from attempting to influence that agency for at least two years. This rule exists to create a "cooling off period" to reduce the likelihood that a former agency official will use his or her professional connections and inside information in a manner that runs contrary to the agency's objectives.

In the case of the NHTSA, the degree to which the agency meets its objectives can have a very real impact on the health and safety of anyone who drives a car or uses public roadways here in Wisconsin or anywhere else in the United States. Some critics say the law does not go far enough to prevent corporate bias in the NHTSA, claiming that some agency officials may be less vigorous in their regulatory efforts in the interest of securing high-paying positions in the private sector later on.

Some commentators say this conflict of interest may have contributed to the NHTSA's delay in adopting more rigorous fuel economy standards, which the agency put off until ordered to do so by Congress and an executive order from President Obama. Similar concerns have arisen regarding the agency's slow response to vehicle safety concerns in recent years, including the ignition switch defect that was implicated in at least 13 fatal car accidents and ultimately led to a recall of millions of General Motors vehicles in 2014.

Wisconsin State Trooper reported ignition switch issue years before recall

In 2006, two teenagers were killed and another was seriously injured when their vehicle went off the road in Wisconsin. Shortly after the accident, a Wisconsin State Trooper determined that a faulty ignition switch was a likely factor in the crash and included that information in a report to GM and the NHTSA, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. House of Representatives.

Although the agency had already been alerted to a pattern of severe traffic accidents involving certain GM vehicles, later linked to the widespread ignition switch defect, the State Trooper's report was either overlooked or disregarded by the NHTSA, which did not address the defect for another several years. By the time the recall was issued, in 2014, at least 13 people had been killed in car accidents linked to the faulty switch.

Legal help for accident victims

People who are hurt or lose a family member due to a vehicle crash are often able to recover financial compensation for the medical costs, lost income and other damages. Contact the injury lawyers at Peterson, Berk & Cross, S.C., for more information if you or a loved one has been hurt in a crash.