While the Times article does not use the phrase directly, NHTSA is portrayed as having fallen victim to regulatory capture, the concept that a regulatory agency becomes so closely aligned with the industry that it regulates that it no longer is able to enforce the law and instead becomes docile and reactive.
The fact that the agency has failed to issue a single recall in 34 years is damning enough, given that during that period approximately 1.3 million Americans died in car accidents. Certainly, strict enforcement by NHTSA would not have prevented all of those deaths, but it is likely that better and more active enforcement of safety laws, would have saved a significant portion of those lives.
In addition, more active surveillance by NHTSA of industry problems would provide the agency with more expertise to better propose safety improvements that would be more effective and they would be able to respond more quickly, as they would recognize the issue sooner.
A change in the decades of an anti-regulation bias within Congress as well as an unwillingness to adequately fund the agency to perform its essential safety function is necessary. The unsupported hope that the market will protect consumer’s safety is belied by the number of gravestones that are a direct result of the negligence of manufacturers and lack of effective government response.
This situation also demonstrates the need for an aggressive personal injury bar, as many of these cases only made it to the public’s eye when a sufficient number of lawsuits had been filed. In absence of effective government regulation, consumers have little choice but to “regulate after the fact” by suing negligent companies. It is sad that often those lawsuits are wrongful death cases.
The New York Times, “Regulator Slow to Respond to Deadly Vehicle Defects,” Hilary Stout, Danielle Ivory and Rebecca R. Ruiz, September 14, 2014