U.S. pledges closer scrutiny of automakers following GM safety crisis
NHTSA seeks alliance with plaintiffs' bar to sniff out defects
WASHINGTON -- Automakers and suppliers can expect tougher data requests and more frequent audits from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency said today as it outlined a plan to prevent safety lapses similar to General Motors’ ignition switch crisis of 2014.
In the report, “NHTSA’s Path Forward,” the agency said it now plans to meet with manufacturers early in each investigation to put them “on notice,” even when the agency lacks the evidence to order a recall. By creating a paper trail, NHTSA hopes to prod manufacturers to disclose data that they could later be accused of having withheld, either during a government investigation or in court.
NHTSA also said it will spell out clearer rules for “early warning reports,” which automakers submit when they learn of severe crashes involving their cars. When approached by NHTSA, manufacturers will now need to share an opinion about the cause of a crash, and, when sued, they will now need to provide documents to NHTSA showing how the case ended -- including whether a legal settlement was struck.
And because attorneys sometimes sniff out a defect before regulators do, the agency “is strengthening its relationship with the plaintiff’s bar as a way of learning about additional death and injury incidents that may be of interest,” the report says.
“Our obligation to save lives and prevent injuries must include sober self-examination, and when we find weaknesses, we have to fix them,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a statement.
A sevenfold hiring plan
In a separate report, NHTSA signaled a plan to expand its defects investigation office, which has the equivalent of 64 full-time employees. In the long term, the agency says it wants another 380 employees -- a roughly sevenfold increase in staffing.
The reports are the culmination of a reform campaign at NHTSA, which was thrust under the microscope last year after GM recalled millions of cars with faulty ignition switches. NHTSA learned of multiple fatal crashes involving GM vehicles in which airbags did not deploy, but failed to make the connection with an ignition switch that could be knocked out of position.
The defect has been linked to 109 deaths and more than 200 injuries.
In one of today’s reports, NHTSA says that GM withheld information that would have helped the agency spot the defect, but the agency did not do enough to push back. Instead, it simply “analyzed the incomplete responses,” and discounted outside theories about why the airbags did not deploy.
NHTSA is not planning to discipline or terminate any staff members as a results of the report, an agency spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
Safety advocates on Capitol Hill praised NHTSA for acknowledging its shortcomings.
“It is incumbent upon Administrator Rosekind to put in place permanent measures necessary to prevent another tragedy like this from ever happening again,” Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement. They repeated a call for legal reforms that would give the public, as well as trial lawyers, access to automakers’ early warning reports.
These internal reports are not the only inquiries into NHTSA’s handling of the ignition switch crisis. A separate report by the agency’s own inspector general, initiated in May 2014, has not yet been released.
Help from NASA scientists
To help implement its changes, NHTSA said, it has assembled a team of three outside experts. They would focus on building a new “risk control innovations” program to address risks that fall outside the agency’s current specialties.
It would specialize in “breaking down stovepipes and reaching into offices from across NHTSA,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
The panelists are Victor Lebacqz, a former top research official at NASA; James Bagian, a former astronaut who is now a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Michigan; and Joseph Kolly, a senior official at the National Transportation Safety Board.
Kolly, who has led NTSB’s Office of Research and Engineering since 2009, was assigned to a detail at NHTSA for the rest of 2015.
The workforce assessment outlines two models for overhauling its Office of Defects Investigation. Both call for increases in staffing and funding.
One model reflects NHTSA’s fiscal 2016 budget request, which the agency’s report describes as a “minimum boost” needed to improve its current defect investigations department. It calls to increase the roughly 64-person staff to 92 full-time equivalents and expand its roughly $11 million annual budget by $23.6 million.
A more dramatic department overhaul, dubbed the “New Paradigm,” would boost the defect investigation budget by $89 million and increase staffing to 380 full-time workers.
“The New Paradigm reflects a quantum leap to a new defects program, granting ODI a much larger and more proactive presence in the automotive safety arena,” NHTSA said in the report.
Major defect cases
High-profile defect cases such as probes into unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, GM’s defective ignition switches and Takata's faulty airbags eat up significant time and resources of NHTSA defect investigators.
NHTSA’s workforce assessment showed that its defect investigations department closed a total of 226 investigations of all types from 2010-2013, down from 364 from 2006-2009, a 38 percent decrease.
Meanwhile, those investigations it did close took between 44 percent and 57 percent longer to complete, depending on the type of investigation, according to NHTSA’s report.
NHTSA’s current funding levels for safety operations are a pittance compared to those of other transportation agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Rail Administration.
In a chart included in its workforce assessment, NHTSA’s enforcement operations -- which include defect investigators, odometer fraud investigators and other functions -- had a $33.6 million budget in the 2014 fiscal year compared with $1.12 billion at the FAA.
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