(Fixes typo in “Monday” in first paragraph)
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON, Feb 2 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama asked Congress to sign off on tens of millions more dollars on Monday to bolster a beleaguered auto-safety agency that has been criticized for responding too slowly to deadly vehicle defects.
Obama’s proposal for the 2016 fiscal year would provide the equivalent of 59 new employees for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The agency has struggled to get a handle on defective ignition switches by General Motors Co and malfunctioning air bags by Takata Corp that have been linked to at least 56 deaths.
Obama asked Congress to boost the agency’s funding 9 percent to $908 million in the next fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1. Much of that increase would go toward hiring additional inspectors and more powerful data mining tools to spot possible safety defects among the flood of reports the agency receives each year.
The proposed increase in funding for NHSTA would more than triple the amount budgeted for investigatins of safety defects, to $31.3 million. That would enable the agency to set up an outreach campaign aimed at encouraging more drivers to file product-safety complaints.
Consumer complaints to NHTSA nearly doubled to 75,000 in 2014, and the new wave of recalls may lead to even more flaws being discovered, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind has said. The office only has 12 employees responsible for identifying possible safety defects.
Republicans who have often been reluctant to fund many of Obama’s domestic proposals signed off on an $11 million increase for the agency last year.
But they have been unwilling to increase the maximum fine that NHTSA can impose from $35 million to $300 million, as the administration has asked. NHTSA fined GM $35 million in June for failing to properly handle the ignition-switch recall, which involved 2.6 million vehicles.
NHTSA also hit Honda with two fines totaling $70 million in January for failing to report accident and warranty data. (Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by John Whitesides and Jonathan Oatis)