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Safety Advocate: Auto Regulators Are Underfunded and Afraid to Ask for More

Last week, Michigan Rep. John Dingell said in a hearing that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has "suffered years of stagnation in funding."

The comment was made before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the auto regulator's handling of consumer complaints about Toyota. The full quote:

"NHTSA has suffered years of stagnation in funding and, in many cases, has endured a reduction in personnel levels, most notably in its Office of Defects Investigation."

That's what we had initially hypothesized, too, here at ProPublica. So we rang the government and asked for NHTSA's requested and enacted funding levels for enforcement, which includes money spent on vehicle safety compliance, safety defects investigation and odometer fraud.

What we found was that since 2000, the regulatory agency has essentially been granted its requested funding levels for enforcement. See for yourself:

Click to see a table of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's requested and actual enforcement funding levels from 2000 through 2010.

But Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer groups, insurance companies and others, believes the NHTSA has been lowballing its funding requests.

When it comes to agency funding requests, the White House is the ultimate decision-maker. "When an administrator says we have enough resources, he's [being] constrained within the political pecking order," said Henry Jasny, general counsel for the group. 

The troubling news surrounding Toyota has brought sudden scrutiny upon this agency of 632 employees, of whom only about 50 work in the Office of Defects Investigation. Olivia Alair, press secretary for the Department of Transportation, says the NHTSA is seeking 66 more employees overall in fiscal 2011. If Congress approves the necessary funding, only up to eight of those positions are slated for the Defects office.

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