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Are The NHTSA and Carmakers Too Close For Comfort?

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By Admin on March 16, 2010 1:04 PM

In light of the recent rash of Toyota cars with defects, many individuals are questioning how such a large problem such as unintended acceleration had gone on for as long as it did. Some say it is because the there is some leeway given to carmakers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). ABC News reports that the former head of NHTSA, Joan Claybrook, calls the NHTSA a "lapdog, not a watchdog". This verbal blast came during a hearing about how the NHTSA has to adopt "tougher standards" with regards to individuals who move on from working with the agency to the very carmakers that the agency regulates.  

The relationship between NHTSA officials and carmakers has been closer than most people realize. According to the Washington Post, there have been as many as 33 former NHTSA employees who left their posts in the NHTSA and currently work for carmakers as lawyers, consultants, lobbyists, and other jobs that involve safety investigations by the government, recalls, and regulation of the auto industry.

Some legislators find that the move from government regulation right into private industry is too close for comfort. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Dem-MN) told the Washington Post: "The relationship is too cozy, and it is not an equal playing field. They need to insulate themselves a bit. People of our country expect there will be checks and balances and that someone will be looking out for them."

While there are currently no laws that ban government officials from shifting their career from government into the private sector, many members of Congress feel that there should be a buffer of time before officials make that move. There is currently a federal law that mandates a two year waiting period for any member of the executive branch after leaving government service from representing any matter under the employee's previous official responsibility. However, there are concerns that this two year waiting period may not be enough time.

All of these concerns are after two former NHTSA officials who played key roles in Toyota investigations had left the agency in order to work for Toyota shortly thereafter. The Washington Post reports that both officials, Mr. Christopher Santucci and Chris Tinto, were lauded in an internal Toyota memo for saving the company as much as $100 million dollars for their efforts. While both men have declined to comment, Toyota spokesman Ed Lewis said that both men have "always acted in a manner consistent with the highest ethical standards and professionalism in the performance of their duties for Toyota." He also added that both men are "valued for their expertise, not their influence."

Ms. Claybrook argues that Toyota not only has too much familiarity with the NHTSA, she claims that many carmakers just do not treat the agency with respect. She is quoted as by ABC News as saying, "Auto companies, including Toyota, treat the agency with contempt." As a result, Ms. Claybrook claims that the ultimate loss is bore by the American public. She testified that "[t]he public loses faith in the government when top staff sell their expertise gained at government expense to the regulated agency."

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