Audit Finds NHTSA Inept At Making Our Roads and Vehicles Safe

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Agency Missed Obvious Clues of Safety Violations

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for regulating safety in the car industry and on our roadways. But the federal government agency has repeatedly failed to do its job, according to a scathing internal audit released by the U. S. Transportation Department. The report found that the agency’s shortcomings “deter[ed] N.H.T.S.A. from successfully meeting the mandate to help prevent crashes and their attendant costs, both human and financial.”

Systemic Failings at NHTSA

The 42-page audit criticized NHTSA for not adequately screening consumer complaints and verifying automakers’ safety claims. The audit also highlights the failings in NHTSA’s processes, including not following statistical practices in its assessments of consumer complaints and auto manufacturer reports. In addition, NHTSA’s staff was undertrained and it’s management weak. When NHTSA suspected an auto manufacturer of violating the law, the agency still took no enforcement action. 

The report said NHTSA conducted its safety duties on an “honor system.” In a classic fox minding the henhouse scenario, the automakers underreported deaths and injuries and mischaracterized safety incidents in the light most favorable to the corporations. NHTSA took the corporations at their word.

NHTSA Investigation Followed G.M. Recalls

The internal audit was ordered after G.M. issued the largest vehicular recall in American history. Last year, General Motors began recalling 2.6 million vehicles that contained a deadly ignition switch defect. An investigation revealed that the giant car manufacturer had known about the deadly problem for close to a decade, but instead of taking immediate action to remove the defective cars from the streets, G.M. engaged an elaborate cover-up scheme. At least 114 people died in crashes directly tied to the flawed G.M. ignition switch

The cover-up would likely have continued had a devastated family of a young woman killed in a G.M. car not hired an accident engineer to investigate. The expert discovered the ignition switch defect and gathered substantial evidence of the company’s deceptive actions. Only then did the NHTSA step in.

Recommendations to Improve NHTSA

The audit made 17 recommendations to NHTSA, including: 

  • Improving methods to analyze fatality and injury claims made by auto manufacturers
  • Implementing better staff training programs
  • Developing a quality control process pertaining to consumer complaint reviews
  • Updating identification and documentation of safety defect trends
  • Streamlining the process for opening investigations into safety matters

The new NHTSA administrator Mark R. Rosekind has been highly praised since he took over NHTSA last December for his more aggressive approach to auto and roadway safety. He plans to enact the recommendations by June 2016. We count on regulatory agencies like NHTSA to protect us from unscrupulous corporate actions. We should demand that our government officials  make our highways and cars safer.

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