Feb. 14--The nation's top transportation official is looking to the friendly skies for answers on how to reform auto safety regulation after a series of recalls and lethal auto defects put a spotlight on lax oversight by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, along with the NHTSA administrator, is modeling new safety programs and agency culture on the U.S. aviation industry, which hasn't suffered a fatal airliner crash in 7 years.
Foxx has adopted something called a "proactive safety culture," based on programs put in place by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is in charge of ensuring airline safety. That culture champions and encourages sharing of safety data among airlines and stakeholders to look constantly for weaknesses and areas that can improve. It relies on self-report of errors by pilots and other personnel, among other key changes.
"That allows us together to isolate where risk exists and to eliminate that risk before a problem emerges," Foxx said. "... that requires a culture shift within DOT, and it requires a different way of thinking outside of this building. So, hopefully there'll be more to say about the specifics down the road but you know this is a very early conversation."
Foxx, who oversees 12 agencies, including NHTSA and the FAA, made it clear in December he wanted automakers to borrow from the aviation playbook.
The automotive industry has been marred in recent years by high-profile recalls by General Motors for faulty ignition switches, Takata's succession of air bag recalls that continue to grow, a public spat with Fiat Chrysler over the scope of a Jeep recall and Toyota's recall of millions of vehicles for unintended acceleration.
Making a 'hard pivot'
Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind met with automakers in December and again in January during the Detroit auto show to hammer out a commitment to new safety principles.
By Jan. 15, after several meetings with automakers, Foxx and Rosekind were able to announce a commitment by automakers to explore ways to share information and data that the U.S. government hopes will help the industry and regulators spot safety problems in the earliest possible stages.
Foxx was flanked on that day by executives from 18 automakers who agreed to explore new ways for the industry to share data to improve automotive safety.
"Perhaps years from now we will look back at this moment, at a time when there may have been some skepticism about the safety of the automotive industry in general, the industry stepped up and made a hard pivot with us towards a more proactive culture," Foxx said when he spoke in Detroit.
Automotive safety advocates including Sean Kane, the founder and president of Safety Research & Strategies, worry the proposal is too vague and a worrisome step towards allowing automakers to police themselves.
But John Hickey, the FAA's deputy associate administrator for aviation safety, said safety advocates and even Congress had similar concerns when the FAA began to change its approach.
"We have not had a commercial passenger fatality since Colgan Airlines in 2009. That is seven years. That is unprecedented," Hickey said. "And it's largely due to the fact that the community comes together, brings the data together."
Hickey said the safety principles the automakers committed to are modeled after the FAA's Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing Program and the FAA's Safety Management System.
The FAA's data sharing model
The FAA's safety analysis system is designed to help regulators, airlines and manufacturers spot trends and safety problems by giving the industry access to about 185 data sources across government and industry, including voluntarily provided safety data.
The final form of the FAA's safety management system, under development for several years, was announced on Jan. 7. It requires airlines to examine and share data gathered from everyday operations, isolate trends that may be precursors to incidents or accidents, and take steps to fix the issues that are uncovered.
This involves having airlines and pilots and maintenance crews report their own mistakes or concerns to FAA, so that they can fix a problem before it becomes an accident.
"This data can help identify patterns and trends that could possibly lead to a problem. But having this information enables the industry to take action before there is a problem," FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in January.
Common FAA, NHTSA vision
Perhaps the first sign that NHTSA would lean on the aviation industry for ideas was the selection of Rosekind, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board, as administrator in December.
Rosekind served on the NTSB from 2010 to 2014. He was the on-scene board member for seven major transportation accidents and participated in almost 50 accident board meetings.
Mark Reuss, General Motors' executive vice president of product development said in January that Rosekind has brought a "whole new fresh look," to NHTSA.
Automotive regulation, Foxx and Rosekind say, has been reactive. All too often the industry and regulators are trying to figure out what went wrong rather than preventing something from going wrong.
In recent months, Foxx, Rosekind and Huerta have all talked about the "proactive safety culture" concept and a goal of zero accidents or safety defects.
"A proactive safety culture means embracing the idea that customers will demand, should expect, and definitely deserve zero safety defects," Rosekind said during an industry conference in Detroit in January.
One year to make a difference
One of the biggest challenges facing Foxx and Rosekind is a shortage of time.
Foxx and Rosekind were appointed to their positions by U.S. President Barack Obama, who has less than one year left in his final term in office. A Democratic president might leave the two men in place but a Republican president would likely make a change.
"When I first met Secretary Foxx, (he said) 'Mark, we're never going to get it all done in two years, but we've got to put markers down so that the path gets set,' " Rosekind said in January. "For us, it's about getting those markers deep, so that we make sure the transformation is in place, and I don't care who's next, they can't pull them out."
Hickey said it took years for the FAA to change its relationship with the aviation industry. In the 1990s, airports and airlines used to have a far more antagonistic relationship in the past. If an FAA investigator showed up at an airport, officials would fear that any infraction found would lead to a fine. Now, Hickey says, the FAA would rather issue warnings so the problems can be fixed quickly rather than immediately issuing a fine.
The result: Over a 10-year period from 1998 to 2008 the Commercial Aviation Safety Team reduced the risk of fatalities in U.S. commercial aviation by 83%.
"It took us years to overcome the barriers," Hickey said. "We now have an open honest relationship with the airlines where they can find that something is going wrong and they submit that data and they do not face an immediate penalty."
Contact Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BrentSnavely. USA Today reporter Bart Jansen contributed to this report.
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