"NHTSA has been viewed by the motor vehicle industry for years as a lapdog, not a watchdog," Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator under President Jimmy Carter, said in prepared testimony.
Congress is considering new auto industry reforms following Toyota's recalls to fix problems with accelerator pedals and brakes. NHTSA has tied 52 deaths to crashes allegedly caused by the accelerator problems, and the agency has received new complaints from owners who had their cars fixed and said their vehicles suddenly accelerated afterward.
A panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was to hear from David Strickland, NHTSA's administrator; David McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group which represents 11 vehicle manufacturers; Ami Gadhia, policy counsel with Consumers Union; and Claybrook, the former head of watchdog group Public Citizen.
The Transportation Department has defended its work in policing the auto industry, noting that it dispatched safety officials to Japan late last year to urge the company to take safety concerns seriously. Toyota president Akio Toyoda recently met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and told him the company would "advance safety to the next level."
The agency has been investigating potential electronic problems in Toyota cars and trucks. Toyota has said it has found no evidence of problems with its vehicles' electronic throttle controls but is also studying the issue.
Automakers point to declines in highway fatalities and the use of safety technology such as anti-rollover electronic stability control as signs of safety improvements on the road. "This is not an industrywide crisis," McCurdy said in an interview.
Crisis or not, Congress is considering several reforms that could bring the biggest auto safety changes since the TREAD Act, which was approved in 2000 to help the government spot safety defects more quickly following the massive Firestone tire recall.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who leads a Senate committee with oversight of the industry, has expressed interest in "strong legislative action," including requiring a brake override system on all vehicles. Toyota is bringing the system to new vehicles and many of the cars and trucks under recall to provide an additional safety precaution.
LaHood told lawmakers his agency may recommend every new vehicle sold in the United States be equipped with the brake overrides, something that would require a relatively inexpensive software upgrade.
Other potential reforms include raising penalties on automakers who fail to recall defective vehicles in a timely manner, requiring car executives to certify the information they provide to NHTSA and mandating car makers provide hardware that dealers need to read electronic data recorders. The "black box" information could help investigators make their own judgments about what has been going wrong.
NHTSA could also receive more funding. Many lawmakers question whether the agency has enough skilled engineers who can understand the complicated electronics of modern cars and trucks.
President Barack Obama has recommended 66 new jobs for NHTSA in his 2011 budget.