Senators: Safety agency must shape up to get more funding

Senators threatened Tuesday to withhold additional funding from the nation’s top auto safety agency until it improves its ability to spot defective parts like Takata Corp.’s exploding air bags.

The Senate Commerce Committee met to grill Takata on its ongoing recall of 33.8 million air bags, the largest recall in U.S. history. At least eight people have been killed and 100 injured by the air bags, which can explode with too much force and spew shrapnel into the vehicle. The problem has persisted for more than a decade and impacts 11 automakers, including Honda, BMW and Toyota.

But much of the committee’s ire was directed at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and its numerous missteps in the Takata investigation as well as last year’s recall of General Motors Co. vehicles for defective ignition switches. NHTSA first learned of a possible problem with Takata air bags in 2004 and investigated the issue in 2009, but didn’t accelerate the recall process until last year.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat,

said he will fight hard to get more money for NHTSA, which has just one person reviewing the 80,000 consumer complaints it receives each year. Nelson said he supported President Obama’s 2016 budget request, which would increase the agency’s funding by 9 percent to $908 million and hire 57 new vehicle defect investigators.

But other senators cited a critical audit of the agency released this week by the Transportation Department’s inspector general. The report noted many problems at NHTSA, including lack of training, failure to follow through on consumer complaints and failure to hold automakers accountable. It recommended 17 actions, including revamping consumer complaint forms to give investigators more information and improving data gathering so NHTSA can spot potential defects more quickly.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said he plans to implement all 17 recommendations. But he noted that the agency’s budget, adjusted for inflation, is 23 percent lower than it was 10 years ago.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said NHTSA shouldn’t get more funding until changes are made. McCaskill said the inspector general’s assessment was one of the most damning audits she had seen of a federal agency.

“This isn’t about resources. This is about blatant incompetent management,” she said. “I’m not about to give you more money until I see meaningful progress.”

Takata Executive Vice President Kevin Kennedy says the company has changed its air bag design and is no longer using the batwing-shaped inflator that was involved in the eight fatal accidents and most of the injuries.