Internal Audit Blasts NHTSA’s Weak Regulation of Automakers

Sunday, June 28, 2015
Mark Rosekind testifying at Senate hearing on Takata airbag recall (photo: Susan Walsh, AP)

The processes used by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) for reporting safety defects in vehicles are “insufficient” to ferret out serious problems, according to an audit by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general.


The audit also pointed out what it said were “weaknesses” in the Office of Defects Investigation’s (ODI) training and supervision of pre-investigation staff. The ODI director told the inspector general that that office relies on the “honor system” for manufacturers to give early warning of problems and to properly report problems. This has resulted in one manufacturer, Honda, understating the number of written claims involving injury or death from 2003 to 2014, until the company self-reported its undercount. It has also resulted in manufacturers putting their defects in the best possible light, such as reporting fires as a “strange odor.”


The audit was ordered after news surfaced about the extent of poor reporting of ignition switch problems with General Motors vehicles, particularly the compact Chevrolet Cobalt. Although GM provided some information to the NHTSA about the problem, the reports were not consistent enough—and the NHTSA wasn’t alert enough—to realize the gravity of the problem.


The smoking gun was a report from a Wisconsin State Trooper about a fatal accident involving a Cobalt in which the ignition switch had turned off, preventing airbags from being deployed after the driver lost control of the car. It was noted that the NHTSA had other reports of similar accidents, and further investigation revealed that the carmaker knew of the defect, but didn’t fix it for years. GM was finally forced to recall 2.6 million vehicles to remedy the problem, which is responsible for at least 114 deaths.


Other findings of the audit were that the approximately 330 complaints the agency receives each day are not properly screened and that the NHTSA doesn’t have sufficient processes in place to identify which defects require investigation.


“Weaknesses in ODI’s training and supervision of pre-investigation staff and its processes for identifying potential safety concerns and initiating investigations, as evidenced by NHTSA’s handling of the GM ignition switch defect, deter NHTSA from successfully meeting its mandate to help prevent crashes and their attendant costs, both human and financial,” the audit concluded.


Among the inspector general’s 17 recommendations is that the NHTSA improve its practices for evaluating and investigating defects and that it do a better job in determining whether manufacturers are properly reporting issues with their vehicles.


The agency is still on the hot seat. NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind testified before a Senate panel on Tuesday about the agency’s role in the recall of nearly 34 million Takata airbags that have impacted 10 U.S. auto manufacturers. During his testimony, according to AP, Rosekind said that NHTSA, within a year’s time, will implement all 17 recommendations made in the audit. He pointed out that safety risks have emerged as a result of personnel cuts at NHTSA caused by a budget that is 23% lower than it was a decade ago.


But Rosekind was firmly admonished by one of the Senate panel’s members. Additional funding for NHTSA shouldn’t be approved anytime soon, unless and until changes are made at the agency, said Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri). “This isn't about resources,” she said. “This is about blatant incompetent management.”

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Federal Auditor Finds Broad Failures at NHTSA (by Danielle Ivory, New York Times)

Report of the Inspector General (Department of Transportation) (pdf)

NHTSA, Blasted in Audit, Vows to Reform Early-Warning System (by Ryan Beene, Automotive News)

National Traffic Safety Administration Failed to Protect Americans from Lethal G.M. Ignition Switch (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Top Auto Safety Administrator Leaves Government to Join Law Firm Representing Auto Companies He Investigated (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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