Another Report Finds NHTSA Failed To Hold Automakers Responsible For Defects, Other Issues

The hits keep on coming for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Less than a month after internal reports determined the agency failed to adequately address the General Motors ignition switch defect that has been linked to more than 100 deaths, an audit from the U.S. Department of Transportation identified a plethora of shortcomings within the auto-safety regulator’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) that prevent it from properly protecting consumers from vehicle defects.

The 42-page report [PDF] by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General claims inadequate data and analysis in NHTSA’s processes undermines its ability to identify and investigate vehicle safety concerns.

According to the report, NHTSA failed to carefully review safety issues, hold automakers accountable for safety lapses, carefully collect vehicle safety data, or properly train or supervise its staff.

Regulators have repeatedly been unsuccessful in conducting basic tasks, such as advising consumers how to report issues, verifying that auto makers provide complete data on safety problems, reading through all consumer complaints and adequately training and supervising staffers.

Additionally, the audit found that in some cases even when ODI investigators found reason to believe a defect could be present, requests to open investigations were often denied.

“Collectively, these weaknesses have resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked,” the report found. “[These weaknesses] deter NHTSA from successfully meeting its mandate to help prevent crashes and their attendant costs, both human and financial.”

Specifically, the audit found systematic flaws contributed to the decades-long delay in identifying and addressing GM’s ignition switch defect.

The defect, which affects more than 2.6 million vehicles, involves ignition switches that can easily be turned into the “off” position because the switch is bumped by the driver’s knee or because the key is attached to a heavy keychain. When this happens, the vehicle’s engine stops and there is no power steering or power brakes. Most importantly, the airbags will not function, so if the car crashes after a stall-out, the airbags will not deploy.

According to a timeline included in the DOT report, NHTSA first received a consumer complaint about ignition issues with GM vehicles in 2003. The following year, the agency received at least three reports of airbag non-deployment in GM cars, at least two of which resulted in injuries to the vehicle driver or other occupants.

In March 2005, the report identified a field report that described a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt stalling on a highway when the driver’s knee hit the key holder.

That August, NHTSA launched a special crash investigation into a July 2005 fatal crash involving a 2005 Cobalt. The air bags did not deploy, and the ignition switch was in the “accessory” position. According to ODI staff, they were invited to participate in the on-site inspection.

Still, the audit found that ODI didn’t start looking into GM airbag non-deployments as a potential safety issue until 2007, and even then the issue wasn’t given much scrutiny.

In fact, in November of that year the agency declined to open a formal investigation into deaths in GM cars. However, an associate administrator for the agency was tasked with keeping an eye on the issue. That person left in 2008 and was never replaced, leaving the issue to go unaddressed for another six years.

The DOT report found that the failure to identify and address the GM issue largely stemmed from systematic issues within the agency’s complaint review processes.

While NHTSA regularly refers to consumer complaints posted in its database as evidence of defects and the need for recalls, the DOT report found the agency ignores nearly 90% of the grievances received daily.

That figure is based on the fact that an initial reviewer’s workload consisted of viewing roughly 330 complaints each day in 2014, a year in which the agency received some 78,000 complaints.

“Determinations of whether complaints warrant further review are made within a matter of seconds — in part because the initial screener spends roughly half of the day carrying out other work responsibilities,” the report found.

To make matters worse, the review tells the DOT that his decisions rely on informal guidance set forth by ODI.

“ODI’s process for initially screening consumer complaints leaves the office vulnerable to a single point of failure and the risk that complaints with potential safety significance may not be selected for further review,” the report states.

As a result of the audit’s findings, the DOT laid out 17 recommendations to improve NHTSA’s collection, screening and analyzing of vehicle safety data including developing more clear-cut guidelines on assessing and improving reporting data; developing a process for prioritizing, assigning responsibility, and establishing periodic reviews of potential safety defects that ODI determines should be monitored; and documenting and establishing procedures for enforcing timeframes for deciding whether to open investigations. A full list of recommendations can be found in the report.

In a response letter to the DOT, NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind agreed with the audit findings and recommendations, saying the agency has already begun to “aggressively implement” changes such as new training programs and standards for complaint reviews.

Rosekind and DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel are expected to address a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on vehicle recalls and safety.

Inadequate Data and Analysis Undermine NHTSA’s Efforts To Identify and Investigate Vehicle Safety Concerns [DOT]

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