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Audit Report Reveals Many Weaknesses in NHTSA’s Safety Processes

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In February 2014, General Motors (GM) started recalling vehicles with defective ignition switches. These switches could turn to the “off” position out of the blue, robbing the engine, steering, brakes, and air bags of power and putting drivers and passengers at risk. When the switch moved during an accident, the air bags would fail to deploy, potentially making that accident much more dangerous and even deadly.

Since that time, GM has recalled millions of vehicles worldwide because of this problem, but critics say that the company acted much too late. Evidence showed that GM was aware of a possible issue way back in 2004, and failed to take appropriate action to protect consumers. As a result, over 100 people ended up dead in ignition-switch-related accidents, while over 200 were injured.

It’s not just GM that’s under fire for putting the public at risk, however. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as well, was slow to link reports of serious accidents where the air bags failed to deploy to the ignition switch issue, repeatedly failing to follow through on investigations meant to turn up evidence of a connection.

Now, the results of a year-long government audit show a number of problems within the NTHTSA, with the overall conclusion being that the administration suffers weakness that resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked.

Audit Reports NHTSA Riddled with Problems

According to a report in the Detroit Free Press, the audit states that the NHTSA “repeatedly failed to hold automakers accountable for safety lapses, didn’t carefully collect vehicle safety data, and didn’t hold car makers accountable for problems.”

Among the problems the auditors found:

• Weak management
• Undertrained staff
• Inadequate processes in place to review safety data
• Poor review of consumer complaints—the NHTSA reportedly ignores 90 percent of them
• Lack of processes to verify reports about defects to be sure they’re complete and accurate

More specifically, the audit pointed out that the NHTSA failed to take seriously complaints about GM air bags failing to deploy, and failed to investigate these complaints properly. It also noted that the NHTSA lacks accountability.

NHTSA Pledges to Improve

For it’s part, the NHTSA states that it lacks the funding it needs to expand the way it would like to. According to Detroit News, they told Congress early this year that they would ideally have an additional 380 workers. They currently have 60.

These employees seem to be overloaded, too. One screener, for instance, reviewed 78,000 complaints in 2014, which amounts to about 330 a day. And this employee had other responsibilities, as well.

Nevertheless, the administration has pledged to do better. They have told the inspector general that they already have a new training plan in place, and that they will tighten early-warning reporting requirements within a year. They also plan more detailed data requests and more frequent audits of suppliers and automakers, and have asked automakers to be more proactive when it comes to vehicle safety.