Why Is The NHTSA So Ineffective?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has responded to criticism with claims that it is not adequately funded to perform its role in overseeing the auto industry. It is hard to argue that the NHTSA can be effective when the maximum penalty it is allowed to inflict is less bothersome than a gnat to auto industry giants. But there is some question as to whether the NHTSA is even interested in holding the auto industry accountable for safety violations. Those questions largely stem an issue that is related to agency capture. The issue is the number of officials who go from the NHTSA to employment with auto companies.
The problem has been referred to as a revolving door. Workers enter into the NHTSA on one side and exit to more lucrative jobs with automakers on the other. How serious are you likely to be about punishing an auto company for safety issues when you know you will be negotiating your shiny new salary with them in a few years' time? The man who was recently replaced as acting head of the NHTSA has moved on to a new job with a law firm focusing on furthering the agenda of trade groups representing automakers. The problem goes all the way to the top.
By law, a federal official must wait for two years after leaving an agency to work on influencing that agency for another employer. Auto companies can easily stash a former NHTSA employee for those two years performing other roles before they begin advocating for their interests over those of the American public. The history of small fines, slow investigations and lackluster safety advocacy becomes quite sinister when you see the sheer number of people flipping from safety advocate to auto industry pusher. The Department of Transportation reported that 40 officials made that jump from 1984 to 2010.
Source: USA Today, "Safety sacrificed in NHTSA revolving door: Column," by Dan Becker and James Gerstenzang, 25 February 2015