Commentary: Highway Safety: Time for Tougher Cops

By Nicole St. Pierre

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is asleep at the wheel--again. In April, the NHTSA assured Ford Motor Co. (F ) that there were no safety problems with the replacement tires the company planned to use on its Explorer sport utility vehicle. But in hearings before the House Energy & Commerce subcommittee on June 19, Representative W.J. "Billy" Tauzin revealed that the NHTSA's own data showed the tires Ford has chosen could be more dangerous than the suspect Firestones they replace.

Confused? So is Congress, the automobile industry, and consumers. Since news of faulty Firestones surfaced last year, the agency has been painfully slow to investigate and unwilling to share with the public what meager safety information it has. A probe that was supposed to take six months has puttered along for more than a year. Meanwhile, bewildered SUV owners have watched as Ford Chief Executive Jacques Nasser and John Lampe, his counterpart at Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., hurl accusations at each other. In short, NHTSA has become a case study in how not to run a government agency.

REFEREE NEEDED. It will be up to NHTSA's new boss to get the agency retooled. Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, an expert in emergency medicine and motor-vehicle injury care, is expected to be confirmed by Congress soon. His first charge should be to provide worried drivers with an answer to a simple but crucial question: Are they driving in a dangerously designed vehicle, on faulty tires, or both?

First, Runge needs to step in and clarify what NHTSA's data does--and does not--show. Ford, Firestone, lawmakers, and safety groups have all been publicly manipulating NHTSA's own claims data while the agency stands mute on the sidelines. Despite the deaths of 203 people riding on Firestone tires in rollover crashes, most occurring on the Ford Explorer, "you barely hear a peep out of the agency," says Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator. NHTSA has been unwilling to publicly interpret and clarify its own data. But consumers clearly need an objective referee to sort out this dogfight, and that should be NHTSA's job.

One good place to start: tires. So far, NHTSA has described the problems linked to the Explorer rollovers as "only a tire issue." But the agency has already warned that 8 million tires are unsafe. NHTSA needs to pinpoint whether the other 42 million tires it is investigating are in fact a danger. Ford has recalled 13 million; NHTSA must also determine whether any of them are even worse.

The agency also needs to clarify once and for all whether there is a design problem with the Explorer. Until now, it has fought suggestions that it investigate the SUV, and quietly made clear that it thinks the tires are the problem. Only after coming under political pressure has NHTSA now agreed to look at the design.

"BEATEN PUPPY." But if the agency really has investigated and determined that the Explorer is blameless, it needs to step up and say so loud and clear, rather than letting Firestone's accusations confuse the public. And if it hasn't done the necessary investigation, then it ought to move swiftly to do so and get to the bottom of this question.

Congress, too, should get out of the agency's way. It is partly to blame for hampering NHTSA's ability to do its job, and it could start making amends now by restoring some of the agency's former independence. In 1978, NHTSA was moving to establish a tire standard but had its funding slashed by Congress a year later at the urging of tiremakers. Imagine the same being done to the Food & Drug Administration at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry. "NHTSA has clearly been a beaten puppy the past 20 years," says Clarence M. Ditlow, president of consumer safety group Center for Automotive Safety.

Clearly, NHTSA has a swelling problem on its hands. Until it does a better job of clearing up this public confusion, the Ford-Firestone fiasco will only get worse.

Nicole St. Pierre covers transportation issues from Washington.

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