I am fairly certain we should all be able to agree that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in its role as the federal regulatory agency that oversees the powerful automobile industry, has an awesome responsibility. Actually, that shouldn’t even be a subject of debate. While NHTSA should be fully capable of carrying out that responsibility, however, I can tell you from experience that it is not doing so. Monitoring and regulating the automakers, and dealing with safety defects in cars, requires that the regulatory agency be adequately funded and properly staffed. But the regulatory agency has had its share of budget and staffing problems in the past several years. NHTSA has seen its budget cut one-fifth from highs more than a decade ago. Congress tried to strengthen NHTSA at that time, but in recent years the agency has been under funded and as a result under staffed. The end result is that NHTSA can’t do the adequate job of regulation that the public not only expects, but deserves.
This situation came to light recently because of the failure by General Motors (GM) to order recalls earlier of millions of its defective vehicles. According to safety advocates, NHTSA investigators don’t have enough resources to keep up with data and detect patterns. Sally Greenberg, president of the Washington-based National Consumers League, observed:
They’re getting information, and they’re not following up. They’re not capturing the information in a way that’s useful. They’re not responding quickly to a litany of similar complaints.
Legislation passed in 2000 during a Ford Explorer SUV tire recall was supposed to boost NHTSA’s defects-investigation team, adding people and giving it direct access to manufacturer data. Since then, however, defects that weren’t pinned down for years have occurred in Toyota Motor Corp. models and most recently now, at GM. As the number of registered cars in the U.S. rose to 248 million, NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations was reduced to 51 employees, from 64 in 2002. The agency’s budget has been about $10 million annually since 2005. Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based group that works with the insurance industry, had this to say:
The idea of $10 million for an office that’s in charge of the safety of all these vehicles, undertaking investigations and doing the recalls, it’s just ridiculous. You look at the number of people working on this, you look at their inadequate funding, and you think to yourself, no wonder this is happening over and over again.
The public is totally unaware that NHSTA is not able to do its mandated responsibilities because of its budgeting problems. If folks were made aware of this, they would demand that Congress remedy the funding crisis. Let’s take a look at what has transpired relating to NHTSA.
Nathan Naylor, a spokesman for NHTSA, has defended the agency’s track record, saying its investigations have led to 929 recalls involving more than 55 million vehicles in the past seven years. Vehicle-related fatalities are at historic lows, and automakers have paid more than $85 million in fines since 2009 for delays in reporting defects, Naylor said in an e-mail. The agency “pursues investigations and recalls wherever our data justifies doing so,” Naylor said in response to questions about the agency’s staffing. “NHTSA is constantly looking for ways to improve our process so we can better identify serious safety defects.” NHTSA has said it didn’t force a recall sooner because the automaker failed to provide timely information that connected defective ignition switches with failing air bags.
Legislation introduced in the Senate – if passed – would require NHTSA to publish information it collects now and do so in a searchable, user-friendly format. That would open the door for analysis of an automaker’s safety data by watchdog groups, competing car companies and lawyers for accident victims. NHTSA has been down this road before. The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act that emerged in 2000, amid media reports that Ford Motor Co.’s Explorer SUVs were rolling over and killing people after their Bridgestone Corp. Firestone tires fell apart, led to a doubling of the spending on defects investigations. The law also gave the regulators more information about emerging defects through quarterly reports compiling warranty claims, death and injury data from every automaker.
The TREAD Act was supposed to give NHTSA the raw data that companies compile and scan for anomalies that would indicate a defect. The system didn’t catch the reports of sudden unintended acceleration incidents in Toyota vehicles that became a focus of congressional hearings in 2010. Neither did it catch the GM ignition-switch defect. “A massive information breakdown at NHTSA has led to deadly vehicle breakdowns on our roads,” said Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who along with fellow Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced the legislation in the Senate to make more defect data available to the public.
Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group in Washington, said the current warning system has led to more than 5,500 recalls. He added:
It seems premature to assume there are systemic problems, much less to identify specific legislative fixes, before investigations are complete and the data necessary for thoughtful decision-making are gathered.
Inspector General Calvin Scovel’s review will be the fourth into the effectiveness of NHTSA’s defects-screening process since 2002. A report in 2011 found the office failed to meet its own timeliness goals in more than half the cases and didn’t even document meetings with manufacturers. Interestingly, the report found no evidence that the office’s handling of the Toyota investigation was influenced by former employees who had gone to work for automakers. Having been directly involved in the Toyota litigation, I totally disagree with that finding. Evidence clearly showed that the former employees played a definite role in keeping NHTSA’s emphasis away from Toyota’s computer problems. I suggest that the folks at NHTSA look at the internal email exchange that was seen by the Oklahoma jury in the Bookout case.
Of NHTSA’s $851 million budget request for fiscal 2015, $19.9 million is for enforcement. Only about half of that – $10.6 million – is for investigating defects, according to government budget documents. That’s the same amount the agency is spending in fiscal 2014, up from $10.1 million in 2013. Ms. Greenberg made this observation: “It’s patently obvious that NHTSA isn’t doing its job in protecting the American consumer. There seems to be a disconnect at the agency.”
Congress – after the Toyota and GM cover-ups and subsequent exposures – must properly fund NHTSA so that the agency can do its job properly. More staffing with experience in a number of areas requiring both expertise and experience is definitely needed. Also, the revolving door between NHTSA and the automobile manufacturing industry must be slammed shut. The American people should have seen enough in the past two years, especially from the Toyota and GM safety problems, to now realize that the industry has to be properly regulated. It’s important for the American people to show their concern by contacting their senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives and let them know how they feel.
Source: Claims Journal
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