There is a crisis in our highway transportation industry that will only be adequately addressed when Congress agrees with what has been known in the aviation industry for half a century — a regulator cannot be an investigator.
We have seen this with the Honda-Takata exploding airbags, GM ignition switches and Toyota's acceleration problems. Now there is mounting evidence that problems with the safety culture at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continue to this day.
When the Transportation Department was established in 1966, it was composed of several regulatory agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration. However, a separate agency was established outside the FAA and independent of the Transportation Department to investigate aviation accidents — the National Transportation Safety Board. Our leaders realized at that time that you cannot conduct effective investigations of yourself.
After an airliner crash, for example, the NTSB investigates the company and the crew and the manufacturers, but it also investigates the regulator (the FAA) that might have played a role in the crash through inadequate rules or inadequate enforcement of its rules.
In the automobile industry, we have seen a record 50 million vehicles recalled this year due to design flaws. Is this a sign that NHTSA is doing its job? On the contrary, these recalls were the result of investigations outside of the agency that brought to light problems the regulator didn't find because it didn't look.
NHTSA has become a paper tiger that defines the concept of the revolving door. It is staffed by former auto industry personnel, while the auto industry is replete with former NHTSA officials.
As we learned in our years at the NTSB, the most effective way for an organization to avoid accidents is to establish a strong corporate safety structure. This is no less true for government agencies. NHTSA does not have that safety culture and past attempts to instill it have failed.
The only solution is to remove the investigation function from NHTSA and place it in the agency that has proved its effectiveness and independence for decades, the NTSB. NHTSA would retain its regulatory function but it would not investigate itself. This process has proved its value with the airline industry, which is experiencing an unprecedented era of safety.
The NTSB has already ehanced highway safety through special studies that helped ban lap-only seat belts in automobiles and led to depowered airbags, to removing child safety seats from the front seat and to effectively raising the drinking age to 21.
This is the ideal solution to the institutional failures we are witnessing at NHTSA. NTSB findings will not only present the same competence we have seen in aviation investigations (and others it has conducted in marine and rail accidents) but will give the American people confidence that the results are not tainted by industry influence.
You cannot have the culture of a regulator and the culture of an investigator, they are two different things. Leave the regulating to NHTSA, but move the investigative function to where it belongs — the NTSB.
Jim Hall, president of Hall & Associates, was chairman of the NTSB, where Peter Goelz was managing director.