WASHINGTON -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is beset with longstanding, systematic operating problems that have undermined the agency’s ability to adequately police auto safety for years, according to an audit of the agency.
The agency is hampered by ineffective management, opaque investigation practices and a staff that is insufficient or ill-trained for the task of analyzing increasingly complex automotive technology, according to the report by the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General.
The audit report also found that NHTSA failed for more than a decade to uncover the General Motors ignition switch defect, which is now linked to more than 100 deaths, the Detroit News reported Friday.
The paper said it obtained a copy of the report from a government source. The report was also obtained by The New York Times and reviewed by Reuters.
According to the News, the inspector general’s report said the problems it found at NHTSA resulted in “significant safety concerns being overlooked,” including:
- NHTSA ignores some 90 percent of consumer complaints it receives daily; screeners spend “seconds” reading them.
- The agency does not verify that manufacturers’ reports about potential defects that may have caused injuries and deaths are complete and accurate.
- The agency denies most requests by staff to open investigations into possible defects, and that defect meetings focus more on reasons against opening an investigation rather than reasons for opening a probe.
- Defect investigation decisions sometimes lack transparency and accountability.
- Agency employees lack adequate training; staffers tasked with analyzing early warning report statistics to spot defect trends lacked training in statistics, for example.
- The agency has failed time and again to hold automakers accountable for problems among the more than 265 million cars and trucks on America's roads.
The bleak report, based on a year-long probe of the agency, is expected to be released on Monday, the News said.
Ultimately, the report said, the agency’s systemic failings “deter NHTSA from successfully meeting the mandate to help prevent crashes and their attendant costs, both human and financial,” according to the New York Times.
The audit follows another internal report released by the Transportation Department two weeks ago in which NHTSA acknowledged its own shortcomings in the years leading up to GM’s ignition recall.
But that report placed blame squarely on GM for deceiving federal safety officials and withholding pertinent information. The inspector general’s report, undertaken in response to the GM recalls, concentrated solely on the shortcomings at NHTSA and its management.
Even in cases where the agency suspected that an automaker was not complying with safety laws, NHTSA did not take prompt enforcement action, the Times said. The paper, citing the audit, said NHTSA officials told investigators at the Office of the Inspector General that they had been aware for years about inconsistencies in Honda Motor Co.’s reporting of death and injury claims, which are required by law. But the agency took no action until fall of 2014, when Honda acknowledged that it did not report 1,729 written claims on injuries or deaths from mid-2003 through mid-2014.
Honda was later fined a record $70 million by NHTSA.
The inspector general’s audit also makes 17 recommendations for significant reforms at NHTSA, the News reported.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, in a June 16 response to the audit obtained by Automotive News, vowed to “aggressively implement” all 17 of the reforms within a year.
Rosekind also outlined several reforms that the agency already has undertaken or planned to adopt soon, such as new training for staff to better understand new “automotive and investigative technologies” and creating a more consistent way of maintaining investigatory documents.
In his response to the report, Rosekind noted that the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation conducted 1,060 probes that resulted in 1,889 recalls in the last decade with a staff of eight defect screeners, 4 early warning data analysts and 16 investigators.
NHTSA also plans more detailed data requests and more frequent audits of suppliers and automakers as part of changes that it outlined earlier to prevent failings similar to what occurred in the decade prior to the GM ignition switch recalls.
Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Rosekind are pressing Congress to increase NHTSA's funding and enforcement powers, including another $20 million for defect investigations budget that has been stuck at $10 million for nearly a decade.
Rosekind, a safety expert who took over the agency less than six months ago, has stepped up NHTSA's recall efforts with Takata and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles by employing agency regulatory powers seldom or never exercised in the past.
The scheduled Monday release of the audit report comes a day before Rosekind is scheduled to testify before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. NHTSA and other auto industry officials will appear at a hearing Tuesday to update the panel on the massive recall of defective airbags made by Takata Corp.
According to a witness list released by the committee, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel III will also testify and will likely detail the audit’s findings before the panel.
Also testifying are Kevin Kennedy, executive vice president of Takata’s North American unit; Rick Schostek, executive vice president of Honda North America; and Scott Kunselman, head of vehicle safety and regulatory compliance at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Reuters contributed to this report.