Auto Agency Said to Face Obama Administration Review

The Obama administration is conducting a broad review of a federal agency that regulates auto safety after it botched a campaign to publicize a potentially lethal air-bag defect, a U.S. official said.

The Transportation Department will determine whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration moves quickly enough on threats to public safety, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday at a briefing with reporters in Washington.

The agency has come under congressional scrutiny after a year in which more U.S. vehicles have been recalled than ever before. Lawmakers have faulted NHTSA for being slow to act on a General Motors Co. ignition-switch defect tied to 29 deaths, and say the agency hasn’t accepted responsibility for its mistakes.

NHTSA didn’t do an adequate job in informing consumers about an expanded recall affecting 7.8 million U.S. cars to fix an air-bag inflator that can send shrapnel into passengers’ faces, the official said.

The auto agency, which has been without a chief since January, may have one nominated within two weeks, the official said.

NHTSA had to correct its advisory on air bags after listing wrong auto companies and models. Its website was down for days after the initial alert, leaving consumers frustrated. The Transportation Department is reviewing what went wrong to ensure the mistakes won’t happen again, the official said.

Confused Drivers

“Drivers are being told they need to fix their cars immediately, yet they are directed to a website that isn’t working properly and are being told by dealers that they don’t have working parts,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan said in a statement. “Drivers are rightly confused and panicked.”

Upton’s committee said it plans a private meeting next week with NHTSA officials about the air-bag recalls.

NHTSA has been without an administrator since David Strickland stepped down in January. Throughout the year, which has included managing the GM ignition-switch recall, NHTSA has been run by its deputy administrator, David Friedman.

NHTSA can’t rely on the lack of leadership as an excuse, the official said.

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