NHTSA and the Auto Industry

With the complete approval of President Clinton and Vice-President Gore, the head of the federal auto safety agency, Dr. Ricardo Martinez has turned a life-saving enforcement agency into a meek consulting firm to the auto industry. Instead of upgrading obsolete crash protection standards and forcing recalls of defective vehicles, Martinez speaks of partnerships, collaboration and harmonization.

Since 1981, this agency, cumbersomely called the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has been caving into auto company lobbyists. Just coincidentally, top officials of this agency have been going to work for these same companies on leaving the agency. NHTSA has become a half-way house, training specialists to make the companies make safer cars and then watching these specialists leave to work for the companies and show them how to defeat NHTSA and lawsuits in the courts.

Thanks to Ralph Hoar and Associates, a for-profit consulting firm on the side of injured people suing the auto companies, a list has been assembled showing how extensive this leap to the industry side has been by these regulatory employees. Here are some examples:

— Andrea Card, former Secretary of Transportation, under which NHTSA operates, is now president of the Automobile Manufacturers Association.

— Diane Steed, who headed NHTSA from 1983 to 1989, heads a consulting firm for auto industry front groups.

— Jerry Curry, head of NHTSA from 1989 – 1993, who destroyed the last remaining safety research vehicles your tax dollars built, is now a lucrative witness for the automobile manufacturers.

— Marion Blakey, also former NHTSA head, is the owner of a consulting firm representing auto industry interests.

— William Boehly, enforcement official for NHTSA, is now testifying in court for the vehicle manufacturers.

— Jeffrey Miller, formerly number two man at NHTSA, is a transportation consultant for auto manufacturers and their suppliers.

— Barry Felrice, for 12 years head of the critical rule-making branch of NHTSA, is now director of regulatory affairs at the American Automobile Manufacturers Association and testifies for auto makers in court.

— Michael Finkelstein, associate administrator of NHTSA between 1976 and 1991, represents Japanese automotive manufacturers and suppliers.

— Roger Fairchild, Erika Jones and Paul Jackson Rice, ex-NETSA staff are now with law firms representing domestic or foreign auto companies.

The list goes on, but the point is that regulators routinely go to work for the companies they used to nominally regulate at one federal agency after another — Food and Drug Administration, the FAA, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Railroad Association (one of the weakest) and many others. At NHTSA, there is an ethics regulation that prohibits court or agency appearances on behalf of clients regarding matters they were involved in while on the public payroll.

A number of ex-NHTSAs have been doing this without receiving any exemption from their former agency. There is no effective agency penalty for any such violations, but judges can ban an expert witness from testifying in a particular case. Recently a Missouri court refused to allow Jeffrey Miller to testify in a case.

If regulatory officials are looking forward to getting high paying jobs or retainers from the auto companies, what kind of law enforcement do you think they will be pursuing while on your public payroll?

Some of these NHTSA switchers were dedicated civil servants like Felrice, Finkelstein and Boehly. But year after year of having to obey political appointees and the White House policies, that were soft or concessionary to outrageous auto company behavior, demoralized them. They figured — why continue to waste their time in the agency, why not go out and make big money.

Meanwhile, Ralph Hoar continues to do well and do good, exposing NHTSA’s foibles and failures and getting pro-consumer information out to the country.

You can observe details about specific vehicle defects and recalls and many other materials on regulation and litigation by visiting his website — The Safety Forum — at http://www.safetyforum.com. You can also receive a copy of his newsletter, Brief Notes, by writing to RH&A, 1001 North Highland Street, Suite 300, Arlington, VA 22201.

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