Feds Driving Blind On Car Safety Defects Data, Ignored Decade of Warnings

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Ethan Barton Editor in Chief
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Federal auto safety officials ignored an official watchdog’s decade of warnings that serious flaws in how the government identifies and tracks car and truck defects and crashes could result in preventable deaths on American highways.

The Department of Transportation Inspector General reported June 22 for at least the fourth time since 2002 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation has poorly trained staff members but, even if they were properly trained, they review defect and accident data that is all but worthless.

“Collectively, these weaknesses have resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked,” the inspector general said in the latest report. “ODI’s processes for collecting vehicle safety data are insufficient to ensure complete and accurate data,” and is often “of very little use.”

NHTSA’s 2014 budget was $814 million and it employed 329 individuals.

More than 35,000 people — or 80 per day — died in the estimated 2.1 million accidents on U.S. roads in 2013, the last year for which complete data is available. Fifty-two percent of those killed were behind the wheel, many of them having consumed more than the legal limit of alcohol.

Only two percent of the crashes were attributable to vehicle problems, usually involving tires or brakes, but defects can be lethal and NHTSA spends hundreds of millions of tax dollars annually trying to detect and prevent them.

The defective ignition switches in millions of General Motors vehicles, for example, caused at least 110 deaths and 220 injuries before the government issued a recall in February 2014. NHTSA first received complaints about the GM ignition switches in 2003.

Last week’s IG report repeated warnings the transportation watchdog has been issuing for more than a decade. A 2011 IG report said NHTSA’s defects office doesn’t “adequately train or supervise its staff.” A new training program was created in response to that report but was never implemented.

As a result, the defects office staff includes individuals, for example, “charged with interpreting statistical test results … have no training or background in statistics.”

As far back as 2002, the transportation IG warned that the data NHTSA uses to decide whether potential defects should be investigated is “in need of major improvements.”

NHTSA officials claim the problems identified by the IG can only be fixed with a bigger budget and larger staff. The defects office budget has dropped over the past decade when adjusted for inflation, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last week.

“The administrator has said we will do everything we can with available resources, but that the lack of resources required to accomplish our mission is a known safety risk,” said NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge. “That’s why the president’s [fiscal year 2016] budget request includes a request for funding to double the number of personnel assigned to ODI.”

The defects office’s budget, however, nearly doubled from $8.9 million in 2000 to $16.1 million the following year. The office also planned to add 18 new staff – a 39 percent increase – in 2002, the same year the critical IG reports began. The defects staff in 2015 has only five more positions than it did in 2002.

Serious management problems in the defects office were also highlighted by a 2004 IG investigation that found $11.6 million in unjustified spending on a new safety defects database, a 76 percent development cost increase from $5.4 million to $9.4 million and a nearly two-year delay.

Even after all of that, the safety defects database wouldn’t adequately track information, the 2004 report said.

“This is not about resources,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., at last week’s hearing on the 2015 report. “This is about mismanagement. This is one of the worst audit reports I’ve ever seen.”

The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act was passed in 2000 to give NHTSA more authority to oversee vehicle safety, following a defect with Firestone tires that led to over 200 deaths and 800 injuries.

Congress noted then that the defects office had insufficient data to take quicker action, but also that it didn’t use all of the data available to it, the same findings the inspector general would later repeatedly reported.

The defects office has consistently lacked proper data in two main categories: consumer complaints and manufacturer reports.

Consumer complaints – formal reports from drivers – are the defects office’s “primary source for identifying safety concerns.” However, the agency doesn’t have enough staff to adequately review the documents, doesn’t have a systematic process to analyze them and doesn’t provide detailed guidance on what information to include, the inspector general reported in 2002 and again last week.

Around 90 percent of the 330 daily complaints are “set aside” rather than reviewed, the IG said.

Also, automakers are given broad guidelines that allow them to determine what should be reported to the defects office, the IG reported in 2011 and again last week. The “honor system” NHTSA uses with automakers, for example, allows serious incidents such as fires to be reported as “strange odors.”

NHTSA officials said they are implementing more than 40 corrective actions and are reviewing potential issues over the past decade.

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