Bill would limit NHTSA officials’ moves to auto industry

The U.S. Senate will consider new legislation aimed at limiting federal auto safety officials from working for the automakers they regulate, the first in what is expected to be a series of bills provoked by Toyota Motor Corp.'s sudden-acceleration problem.

The bill, introduced Wednesday by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) would prevent employees of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from taking certain jobs at carmakers for a period of three years after they leave the agency.

Only jobs involving direct communications with NHTSA would be prohibited, and only top NHTSA officials, or those involved in safety regulation, would be subject to the rule. The bill filed by Boxer would impose a $55,000 fine on individuals and $100,000 or more for automakers, in case of a violation.

“I am deeply concerned about the all-too-cozy relationship between former NHTSA officials and the auto industry,” Boxer said in a statement. “My legislation would address this ‘revolving door’ by preventing automakers from having undue influence on agency decisions.”

The agency has come under fire in recent months for its handling of the issue of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, and in particular because of the number of former NHTSA employees who have left the company to work for the Japanese automaker. The Times reported in December that a number of Toyota officials, including its top two liaisons with NHTSA, had been recruited directly from the safety regulator.

Internal Toyota communications revealed this year show that Toyota’s regulatory officials boasted of saving hundreds of millions of dollars by negotiating less costly recalls, or in some cases avoiding them altogether. That issue was raised repeatedly in three Toyota hearings held in the House and Senate in late February and early March. A fourth hearing, on the role of electronics in sudden acceleration, is scheduled for May 6.

At the previous hearings, lawmakers discussed the possibility of legislation that would require safety systems such as brake override software and electronic data recorders, or “black boxes,” on autos. In addition, they explored increasing the maximum size of the civil penalty that could be imposed on automakers and suppliers for violating safety regulations.

NHTSA hit Toyota with a $16.4-million penalty this month for delaying a recall for gas pedals that can stick. That amount, the most allowable under current law, has been criticized as too small to be a deterrent for car companies such as Toyota, which count their revenue in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year. Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook, now a safety advocate, has called for fines of $100 million.

In addition, some in Congress, including Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said they would consider laws that imposed criminal penalties on automakers for delaying recalls or failing to report safety issues.

In February, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation said it would conduct a review of NHTSA’s defect investigation process. The agency has been criticized for being understaffed and unequipped to thoroughly monitor safety issues in the increasingly complex auto industry. NHTSA has roughly 125 engineers on staff.