WASHINGTON -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration botched its effort to inform the public about a potentially lethal airbag defect, directing 8 million consumers to an inoperable website and leaving millions of others unsure as to whether their cars were even at risk.
For more than two days after telling motorists of the urgent need to check the government-run safercar.gov for information, the search function on the website was down. The effects of the outage were compounded by NHTSA having to correct a consumer advisory to show some vehicles originally listed weren’t at risk, while about 3 million cars not mentioned were.
For Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the agency who now advocates for consumer safety, it was a “total meltdown.” The inability of NHTSA to manage such a public campaign shows congressional criticism earlier this year over how it handled the General Motors ignition-switch recall hasn’t gotten the agency in good working order.
“It’s a royal embarrassment,” Claybrook said. “It totally undermines trust in the agency.”
The website troubles aren’t attributable to increased traffic or hacking, NHTSA said in a statement Thursday.
“We greatly regret that the information provided in our initial safety advisory was inaccurate and that we have experienced significant problems with our website,” NHTSA’s deputy administrator, David Friedman, said in the statement.
Parts of the website, including the vehicle recall lookup tool, were working as of late today. Preliminary indications show that the outage may have been linked to a recent software change that affects how the system interacts with the Internet, the agency said.
NHTSA’s statement left unanswered questions about why its initial advisory was wrong and when all of the website’s functions will be restored.
The agency’s missteps came as the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked for a briefing about the air bag recalls, which involve components supplied by Takata Corp. and have been linked to four deaths.
“Recalls continue to mount across the country, and drivers are losing confidence,” Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and the committee’s chairman, said in a statement.
In a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx Wednesday, Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts criticized NHTSA for issuing “confusing and conflicting advice” and responding to a public safety threat at a “glacial pace.”
The two senators, both Democrats, asked Foxx to step in to provide clear guidance and get NHTSA to order an immediate nationwide recall rather than limiting the action to southern states with high humidity.
They also questioned the agency’s endorsement of Toyota Motor Corp. and GM plans to disable air bags if replacement parts aren’t immediately available and discourage passengers from riding in the front seat. The policy may break a law requiring specific exemptions from the secretary before automakers disable safety devices.
“As a matter of policy, this step is extraordinarily troubling and potentially dangerous,” the senators wrote. “We are unaware of an exemption from your office.”
A Transportation Department spokesman, Brian Farber, said the senators’ letter is under review. The investigation into faulty Takata air bags is continuing, he said.
Takata, based in Tokyo, faces investigations into whether some of its air bags can explode with enough force to hurl metal shards that can injure or kill car occupants.
“We have taken an aggressive and relatively unprecedented step by forcing a regional recall on limited information,” Farber said. “We will not rest until we know the full geographic scope of the problem.”
The push for a recall targeted to high-humidity regions was driven by evidence that the failure rate is highest in those areas, and there is a limited supply of replacement air bags, according to a background statement provided by NHTSA.
Takata has said it is cooperating with regulators and automakers. Honda Motor Co., Toyota and GM have sent warnings about the air bags to owners in the past week.
Separately Thursday, Volkswagen AG’s Audi said it’s recalling 850,000 A4 sedans and station wagons worldwide to fix faulty software that could lead to air bags not inflating in case of an accident. The fault was detected during internal investigations, and updating the software at dealerships will take about three minutes, said Jochen Grueten, an Audi spokesman.
Honda alone has recalled 6 million vehicles globally since 2008 because of the Takata air-bag flaw.
Will Lawrence, a San Carlos, Calif., owner of a 2005 Honda Pilot, said he became concerned after hearing about the possibility of death by shrapnel. He was locked out of the safercar.gov website on Oct. 20. He tried different computers and got the same message that NHTSA’s vehicle-number lookup tool couldn’t be opened. He tried to send the agency a note, but the site wouldn’t accept his submission.
“It is simply inconceivable that NHTSA would direct people to its website to check on their vehicles and not be prepared for the resulting traffic,” Lawrence said in an e-mail. “NHTSA could at least give people an explanation of the problems and tell them when to expect them to be resolved.”
About 7.8 million people in the U.S. are being notified about the defect, as GM joined Toyota in warning people not to sit in front passenger seats until repairs can be made. The recalls affect at least 10 carmakers in the the U.S.
The first list issued by NHTSA on Oct. 20 said only 4.74 million cars in the U.S. were affected from six automakers: GM, Toyota, Honda, Nissan Motor Corp., Mazda Motor Corp. and BMW AG.
Owners of cars made by Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group and Subaru could rest easy, it seemed. By the next day, those three automakers, comprising 17 different models, were on the recall list. So were two models made by Mitsubishi.
The search function on safercar.gov began experiencing “intermittent network issues” shortly after the first advisory went out. The agency had to then direct consumers to websites of individual automakers, whose vehicle lookup functions were working.