By Christopher Jensen
Since 1970 the tiny Center for Auto Safety has wielded enormous influence through its campaigns to recall vehicles for safety-related defects and to push states to enact consumer protections such as lemon laws.
But consumer advocates say the Washington, D.C.,-based nonprofit is entering a new and perhaps more challenging environment under the Trump administration. And, for the first time in four decades, it will be doing so under a new leader, Jason K. Levine, who was named the center’s executive director today.
Levine, 45, a consumer protection lawyer, will be the center’s first new leader since 1976, replacing Clarence M. Ditlow, a legendary safety advocate who died last year of cancer at the age of 72.
The job “will be more challenging than it has ever been before because the administration announced publicly they want to deregulate everything,” said Rosemary Shahan, the president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a California-based group.
Government agencies established to protect consumers “all are under assault not just by deregulation proposals, but by hollowing the agencies on the inside and staffing them with people who place excessive faith in an unregulated, profit-driven market,” said Norman I. Silber, a professor of consumer law at Hofstra University and senior research scholar at Yale University.
The center, founded in 1970 by Ralph Nader and Consumers Union, has typically operated on a budget of about $500,000 a year and currently has five employees. Under Ditlow’s leadership it prodded Congress and federal agencies to investigate deadly safety defects, initiate recalls, improve safety regulations and adopt safety technology.
Levine, who spent most of the last decade working in leadership positions in the federal government, including a stint as chief of staff at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, acknowledges that the center is facing what could be a tough new regulatory environment.
“But I would not agree that there is no hope,” he told FairWarning. “I do think that it makes our job harder. But I would also say its makes our job more important.”
Levine lacks an automotive background, but said that staffers at the center have that expertise. That will be matched with his knowledge with federal agencies, including what he called “the mechanics of how things work and the rhythms of how things work.”
He takes over as the auto industry is at a historic point, rushing to develop autonomous vehicles — something the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has declined to tightly regulate.
Instead of detailed, technical requirements on how self-driving vehicles should perform, it has issued more general guidelines. The agency says those guidelines protect motorists without stifling an emerging technology expected to save lives by preventing crashes.
But Levine describes NHTSA’s decision as a “complete punt on autonomous vehicles that has opened the door to the potential for people of all stripes, inside the cars and outside the cars, being used as guinea pigs.”
He said autonomous vehicles have “amazing potential” for saving lives, but the center will push for a regulatory scheme to make sure motorists are not endangered by flaws with the complex systems.
“There is a big distinction between not stifling innovation and just letting an industry run roughshod over something that has the potential to completely change the face of the American roadway,” he said.
The rising death rate on American highways is another of his concerns. Other areas on which Levine said the center will focus include:
• Making safety technology such as crash avoidance and automatic emergency braking available on less-expensive vehicles.
• Challenging the Federal Trade Commission over a decision last year that allows automakers to advertise used vehicles as safe even though a safety recall may not have been carried out. “It suggests they have forgotten what the definition of false advertising is,” he said.
• Pushing for a regulation requiring seatbacks to be stronger and better able to resist breaking in rear-impact crashes. Such failures have resulted in occupants being paralyzed and children seated in the second row being killed.
• Using social media to inform consumers about automotive safety issues and galvanize their support.
• Making certain vehicles are safe from cyber threats.
• Forcing NHTSA to require vehicles be equipped with warning chimes if occupants in the back seat do not buckle their seat belts. In 2012 Congress ordered the federal agency to implement such a rule but it has failed to do so.
• Fighting efforts to reduce fuel-economy standards.
But the next few years may turn out to be a time when the priority is defending existing safety regulations rather than seeking new ones, said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and ex-president of the advocacy group Public Citizen.
Levine “is going to have to help us protect all the gains that have been made,” she said.
President Trump has yet to appoint anyone to head NHTSA and it is still unclear how his deregulation plan will affect automotive safety, said Ben Kelley, a safety advocate who has been on the board of the center since shortly after its founding.
“There are a lot of question marks in the short term,” he said. “But I think over the long run, let’s say a decade, with the emergence of autonomous-vehicle technology there is going to be a lot that groups like the Center for Auto Safety need to be doing.”
This story was reported by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Pasadena, Calif., that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.