Federal auto safety rules have saved many lives, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been almost criminally negligent when it comes to certifying imported parts as safe.
Most notorious among them are the exploding airbags manufactured by Japanese manufacturer Takata that have killed at least seven Americans. Scores more have been maimed when metal shrapnel from the safety devices ripped into their faces.
As a result of the misfiring, nearly 34 million vehicles in the U.S. are under recall to be repaired — an action that is expected to take more than four years because of Takata’s limited production capacity.
Most of the faulty bags are in cars produced from 2002 to 2008, although NHTSA is now concerned that some 2014 models may have been compromised as well.
Ironically, Takata manufactured special parachute lines that saved thousands of pilots from the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy after they were shot down during World War II.
The company got into the air bag business in the 1970s against the wishes of its founder, who considered the devices unreliable.
NHTSA, which has apologized for not warning of the airbags’ defects, ordered the devices on U.S. cars in 1984 after a decades-long campaign by consumer crusaders Ralph Nader and Joan Claybrook and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — a testing organization created by big insurance companies who thought the devices might decrease accident payouts.
There were skeptics at the time. Forbes’ Jerry Flint — considered one of the best automotive journalists of his time — considered airbags as an iffy safety device at best.
He once told a group of automotive journalists at the National Press Club about his experience when he was allowed to test the device in a demonstration lab.
“When it exploded from the steering wheel it almost ripped my head-off,” he said.
“If I had been smoking my pipe, it would have ended up sticking out of the back of my head.” Flint also worried that the device might kill or seriously injure frail elderly people and small children.
Many in the auto industry question why the federal government allowed foreign automakers and parts suppliers almost unlimited access to the U.S. markets beginning in the 1970s.
Rather than rely on substandard foreign airbags, the United States should prioritize reestablishing the American auto industry as the model for the rest of the world.
There is no valid reason why U.S. automakers, who once employed more than 2 million American workers in well-paying union jobs that allowed them to own a home, send their kids to college, and even buy a cottage at the lake for summertime paid-vacations, shouldn’t dominate our country’s auto market.
And there is no reason why a city like Detroit, which earned the sobriquet “arsenal of democracy” in the fight to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, shouldn’t become a bustling manufacturing center again.
The wrecked automobile industries of Cleveland, Toledo, Ohio, St. Louis, Buffalo, N.Y., Flint, Mich., and many other once-thriving factory cities can also enjoy a comeback with a major pro-active push from Washington.
It is clearly time for the federal government to cast aside job-killing international “fair” and “free” trade contrivances like the Trans Pacific Partnership championed by President Barack Obama.
In 2004, the U.S. auto industry accounted for over a million workers. The Republican recession resulted in a loss of some 400,000 jobs in the automotive sector. Even after an $80 billion bailout from the American taxpayers, only some 10,000 of those jobs have been recovered.
What happened to the rest? Increased automation and foreign outsourcing in the auto industry accounted for many of the job losses.
If the Feds really are micromanaging auto safety, NHTSA’s negligence with Takata — and quite possibly other foreign parts manufacturers — shows they need to micromanage a whole lot harder.