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Auto safety agency labors to keep pace

Richard and Carolyn Carlson were driving through rural Colorado in February 2005 when they hit a patch of black ice. Their Chrysler PT Cruiser spun backward into an embankment, causing the back of Carolyn’s seat to collapse. She was hurled into the roof and partway through the rear window.

In an instant, Carolyn Carlson became a quadriplegic, and one of the thousands of Americans who suffer injuries, or death, each year in crashes in which car seats break.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has looked at forcing automakers to build stronger seats, first considering new rules in the early 1990s. But automakers objected, arguing that the matter needed more study, and in 2004 the agency formally shelved the issue.

The agency’s handling of the seat-back regulation illustrates what has become a frequent criticism of NHTSA: that it is too slow to identify potential safety problems, and even slower to order potentially lifesaving fixes.

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The agency has not ordered a mandatory recall since 1979. The largest fine it has ever issued was $1 million -- small change for automakers with billions of dollars in annual sales -- and it has not levied any such penalties against an automobile manufacturer since 2004.

NHTSA has come under a new spotlight in recent months amid its investigation of sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota and Lexus vehicles that led to the automaker’s largest-ever recall.

After the problems surfaced, the agency said more motorists have died in Toyota vehicles associated with sudden acceleration in the last decade than in cars made by all other manufacturers combined.

Yet despite eight NHTSA investigations of sudden-acceleration problems involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles since 2003, the problem persisted -- ultimately leading to a massive, 4.3-million vehicle recall that the automaker initiated in hopes of finally putting the matter to rest.

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Officials at both NHTSA and the Department of Transportation have rejected repeated requests from The Times for an interview to discuss the agency’s operations. In a statement, NHTSA said safety was its No. 1 priority but acknowledged that “in past years, the agency has been short-staffed and is working to address this issue.”

The agency said it was adding 20 full-time employees to help oversee auto safety, combat drunk and distracted driving, and persuade people to wear their seat belts.

An examination of NHTSA documents and actions, as well as interviews with former administrators and auto safety experts, paints a picture of an agency that has struggled to keep pace with the rapid technological changes in the industry it regulates.

NHTSA’s budget for defect investigations and safety standards has shrunk in real terms for years, in a period when the number of models on the market multiplied, computer-driven electronics replaced mechanical functions and the auto industry was globalizing.

“Vehicles are much more complex, much more computerized,” said Ricardo Martinez, who served for six years in the 1990s as NHTSA’s administrator. “So, the question is, have the resources gone up to follow it? And the answer is no.”

To its credit, NHTSA can point to a 13% drop in the rate of highway fatalities since 2005 -- thanks in part to reductions in drunk-driving crashes, increased seat-belt use and new safety features on vehicles, such as air bags.

Still, there were 37,261 highway deaths in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, dwarfing the number of deaths from any other form of transportation. Nearly three-quarters of NHTSA’s $867-million annual budget goes to state grants, most of it for what agency insiders sometimes call “booze and belts” programs that promote seat-belt use and drunk-driving enforcement.

NHTSA’s spending on everything else -- $241 million -- has stayed flat. In some crucial functions, such as investigations and rule making, the budget has dropped by more than half since 2001.

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“The agency is woefully underfunded,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, who has long acted as a watchdog over the NHTSA. “It is an incredible disservice to the American public.”

In terms of political importance, the agency seems to be in the back seat. Its new administrator, David Strickland, a longtime Senate committee staffer, was confirmed as the agency’s 14th chief last week, nearly a year into the Obama administration.

Burst of zeal

NHTSA was conceived in the mid-1960s, in response to Ralph Nader’s career-making exposé of the Chevrolet Corvair and defects in other autos in the book “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

In its first few years, the agency imposed dozens of safety standards. But since that burst of activity, the agency’s rule making has slowed amid stiff opposition from automakers and an anti-regulatory fervor in Washington.

A review of NHTSA rule making over the last decade indicates that most proposed rules that actually pass have been required by an act of Congress, and regulations drafted by the agency or outside petitioners often are rejected.

In 2004, for example, the agency withdrew a proposed rule it had considered for 12 years to improve the safety of radiator caps after it found that about 15,000 people had been scalded in a single year it studied.

A safer radiator cap was estimated to cost 65 cents, according to an outside engineering firm. But the auto industry opposed the rule, contending that it had already made radiator systems safer and that the new caps would cost more than claimed.

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NHTSA dropped its effort, saying that the scaldings had fallen to just 5,000 in a subsequent year and that the decrease was probably attributable to the industry improvements.Similarly, the agency has abandoned proposed rules since the late 1990s requiring safer truck fuel systems, stronger truck brakes and improved window visibility, among others.

The rule on seat backs is widely regarded by safety experts as a case study of the agency’s extreme caution.

The existing rule, adopted in 1968, requires that a seat withstand 20 times the weight of the seat back, a standard easily exceeded in moderate rear-end crashes, said Kenneth Saczalski, a consultant who formerly worked at the Office of Naval Research and who filed a petition for a tougher standard.

“We have built seats out of cardboard that meet the rule,” Saczalski said.

The industry has contended that seat backs are meant to collapse and absorb energy to reduce injuries, but Saczalski and other experts say there is little evidence that the seats collapse in a controlled way in crashes and that different models of vehicles from the same manufacturer differ widely in strength.

Nonetheless, NHTSA said it dropped its proposed rule for stronger seats in part because it found that too few serious injuries or fatalities resulted from crashes. The industry also contended that stiffer seats could also pose a greater risk of neck injury, a contention disputed by advocates for the rule.

In an assessment published when it began looking at new standards in 1992, the agency said that over a two-year period it found an estimated 89,000 serious injuries in crashes involving damaged seats.

Safety advocates, including former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook, say those estimates understate the problem as well as the larger societal costs, given the sheer expense of treating victims of quadriplegia.

Fateful crash

In the Carlson case, it appears the seat failed when the recliner mechanism broke, said Raymond Paul Johnson, an attorney representing the Lincoln, Neb., couple. The gear teeth in the PT Cruiser seat-reclining mechanism are about the size of the tip of a ballpoint pen, he said. Other models, he said, have more substantial mechanisms.

“All this needs is a simple fix,” he said.

Richard Carlson, 66, recalled that the crash into the embankment on that night in February 2005 did not seem severe, but when he reached over to touch his wife in the dark she wasn’t there.

“I knew we wrecked the car, but you can always get a new car,” he said.

He said they had the “world by the tail” before the accident, playing cards with friends, taking care of their grandchildren, fishing, water-skiing, attending church and traveling across the West.

Now he spends most of each day caring for his 63-year-old wife and worrying that their money is running out.

They are seeking $10 million to fund her medical expenses, but the prospects for a settlement have been complicated by Chrysler’s bankruptcy this year.

Chrysler said in a statement that although the vehicle’s seats were damaged in the accident, it did not believe that was the cause of Carlson’s injuries. And it noted that her husband was unhurt. It said the PT Cruiser “meets or exceeds all applicable safety standards and has an excellent safety record.”

Not everybody agrees that NHTSA lacks resources. Nicole Nason, an administrator until last year, said that budget constraints did not prevent the agency from carrying out its mission, including issuing several important rules.

“It is hard to tell what we would have done in the two years I was there if we had more money,” she said, adding that during her tenure the agency adopted a rule requiring electronic stability-control systems for new vehicles.

But the agency’s job is getting more difficult.

One of NHTSA’s duties is spotting dangerous problems through its Office of Defects Investigation.

In the last decade, the number of models of new cars for sale has grown by nearly 50%, and the Office of Defect’s database of consumer complaints has grown at a rate of nearly 40,000 a year, reaching about 800,000 entries.

To handle that deluge, the office has a staff of fewer than 60 employees. In the last fiscal year, Congress authorized less than half of the inflation-adjusted $39 million it had in 2001 for NHTSA’s enforcement activities, which includes the Office of Defects Investigation.

Fines are rare

At present, the agency has 41 open investigations, which involve contacts with automakers, interviews with drivers, field research, testing and consultation with lawyers. The cases are being handled by 18 investigators, one of whom is juggling five at once, according to NHTSA records.

“The agency tries to be pretty active in dealing with defects,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group funded by insurers. “The problem is that it’s not always easy for it to find the defects.”

When NHTSA finds that an automaker is out of compliance with a safety rule, it has the authority to levy a fine.

It rarely does.

In 2000, Congress empowered NHTSA to impose fines of up to $15 million, up from just under $1 million previously. In 2004, the agency levied its biggest fine ever, $1 million against General Motors for delaying a recall of a windshield wiper motor on 600,000 sport utility vehicles.

Since then, NHTSA has not assessed any auto manufacturer with a fine. In response to queries, NHTSA provided a list of fines it has issued in the last five years, including ones this year against a motorcycle helmet maker and a bus company.

“The penalties don’t have enough teeth in them for a manufacturer to fear anything,” said Allan Kam, who served as an attorney at NHTSA for 25 years before leaving in 2000 to become a consultant on vehicle regulation. “It makes more sense for an automaker to avoid a recall if the only penalty is a small fine.”

There are also instances when NHTSA has tried to get tough, only to be shot down.

In the mid-1990s, NHTSA determined that Chrysler’s Cirrus and Dodge Stratus cars had weak seat-belt anchors, based on a laboratory test. Chrysler said that the test was flawed and that nobody had suffered an injury from the anchors, recalled Lew Goldfarb, former Chrysler associate general counsel.

Chrysler brought in top legal talent, including future Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Goldfarb said. At one point, Chrysler used a crane to hoist a car up by the seat-belt anchors to demonstrate their strength. In 1998, a federal appeals court reversed the defect finding.

Along with first-rate lawyers, automakers have also been aided by former NHTSA employees.

When attorney Edgar Heiskell went to a Washington law office this month to depose a Toyota Motor Corp. executive, he said he was met by a virtual NHTSA alumni club now working for Toyota. It included at least two former agency attorneys and former defects investigator Christopher Santucci.

In the deposition, Santucci said he negotiated a job with Toyota while he was still employed at NHTSA and gave the agency two to three weeks’ notice.

Many former agency administrators and attorneys -- including Diane Steed, Sue Bailey, Ralph Curry and Jacqueline Glassman -- have left the agency to work for the industry. Though some say the expertise brought by ex-NHTSA officials actually helps the auto industry comply with safety standards, others believe the prospect of lucrative work for automakers may encourage some NHTSA staffers to go easy on the companies while on the government payroll.

Consumer advocate Nader, who helped launch the modern automobile safety movement, said NHTSA has been hollowed out by an exodus of talent and is losing political support as the falling highway death rate creates a misplaced complacency.

“It is a broken agency that has to be rebuilt,” Nader said. “Thousands of people can be saved.”

ralph.vartabedian @latimes.com

ken.bensinger@latimes.com


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