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NHTSA Audit Highlights Apathetic, Disastrous Problems

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It sounds like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is a mix between the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert and a spaced-out pot head, and we’re a high school girl who keeps getting back together with her boyfriend, because he said, “I would never cheat on you…again.”

man holding flowers

Come on, baby, the NHTSA headquarters is in New Jersey. Nothing counts in New Jersey.

The Inspector General from the US Department of Transportation, Calvin L. Scovel III, recently released an audit on the NHTSA, helpfully titled, “Inadequate Data and Analysis Undermine NHTSA’s Efforts to Identify and Investigate Vehicle Safety Concerns.” For the full text, click here.

As you can imagine, it was not a glowing review. In particular, Scovel found many problems with the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation, which is in charge of finding potential safety issues and ordering recalls. Below is a concise list of the conclusions from the audit.

First, the ODI’s information-gathering methods are sloppy and inconsistent—vehicle manufacturers are required to submit early-warning data on possible safety problems, but first it needs to be categorized in one of 24 general groups. Many times this is a subjective choice (would the GM ignition switch recall from several years ago that prevented airbags from deploying classified as “AirBags” or “Electrical”?), and it is up to the manufacturers to make that choice.

That means a huge chunk of information sent to the ODI is, statistically, useless.

More Recall News: Takata Airbag Recall Nearly Doubles to 34 Million

Also, the ODI’s methods for checking whether a manufacturer even sent full reports is simply bad—back in May 2014, one vehicle manufacturer was reporting much less early-warning data than its competitors. The ODI, who had contacted the manufacturer before, a little over two years prior about the same problem, ignored this until the manufacturer finally admitted (like the guilty boyfriend, above) that it had omitted telling the NHTSA about 1,700 death and injury claims.

Fighting Couple

Come on, baby, I said that it could have been 2,000 deaths, but I told you because if I didn’t I knew I would get caught
Photo: Katheirne Hitt

The audit also said that the ODI was ignoring basic statistical analysis methods—while they did receive data about crashes and incidents, they did not have anything to compare them to; i.e., they had never figured out what crash statistics looked like for a car that wasn’t having safety defects.

Oh, and the ODI ignored about 90% of consumer reports, because there’s like, a lot of them, you guys. On top of that, there is no guidance on the reporting website on what certain parts are (i.e. “adaptive equipment”). So, while the screeners for this data are encouraged to look further into complaints, half of them told Scovel that they usually just…don’t.

Couple Cooking on a Barbecue

Sorry, that barbecue is just calling my name

Perhaps this is partly because the ODI neither trains nor supervises its staff in any adequate manner. Scovel wrote it best: “For example, NHTSA has a training plan for ODI staff, but it has not implemented this plan.” So, to reiterate the point, the NHTSA has a plan to train its staff, but it simply doesn’t, partly because they don’t have the funding for training to keep up professional certifications (so the screeners will know what they are looking at). As a result, training is to be completed on the screener’s own time and at his or her own expense (and the supervisors may never know whether it happens, because there isn’t an adequate review process—often, screeners told Scovel there was little to no review of their review at all).

This applies to screeners entering their positions as well, who may never have received training in their area of concentration—three advanced screeners for airbag incidents hadn’t been trained on airbags (which we would assume would be step one in getting an airbag review job).

excited young businessman

Step two is pants

So, the screeners, who set aside 9 out of 10 consumer reports, don’t necessarily have the skills to even see if there is a problem—with the GM ignition recall, back in 2007, the ODI staff received a report that indicated that the airbag not deploying may be because of the ignition switch, but they didn’t include it in the report. ODI officials told Scovel that, at the time, they were unsure “under what conditions the airbags were supposed to deploy” (While I also initially thought “in a crash?” the officials may have meant that they did not know if airbags would deploy when the car’s ignition switch was in the “OFF” or in “ACC” positions).

Over 100 people were killed because of that oversight.

More Recall News: Dodge Hellcat Recall Affects Every Model

Then again, if the ignition switch information had reached the next level, there is no guarantee that it would be investigated, because the ODI’s system for deciding whether to investigate potential defects isn’t conclusive. While there are factors for saying yes or no to an investigation, there is no guidance or consensus on how the officials should apply them, so while one review team might say the ignition switch problem was a terrible problem, another might read it over and say, “Meh.”

man reading book

That is, if they don’t say “I didn’t know you flipped a switch to turn a car on”

Oh, wait. Actually, that’s exactly what happened, and we don’t know why, because the ODI’s decisions have no transparency or accountability. After receiving the information on the airbag non-deployments, the ODI considered opening an investigation, but decided against it. They did not document why they did so. On top of that, the Associate Administrator for Enforcement told the ODI to investigate, but the ODI screener responsible for that particular case left the NHTSA in 2008, and they simply didn’t tell anyone else to look into it. From then on, they missed even more opportunities to look into the ignition switch issue.

Keep in mind that the NHTSA did not initiate the ignition switch recall – that was begun by GM in February 2014. The most recent action on the issue by the NHTSA was in August 2013. The screener concluded that there was “no actionable trend indicated,” so there would be “no action at this time.”

man staring into his shoe

I swore I would get to use this photo one day. Thank you, NHTSA, for this opportunity.

After finishing his 26-page report, Scovel wrote 17 recommendations on how to fix all of these critical and pervasive issues. After it was sent to the NHTSA, they agreed to all 17 recommendations and agreed to implement them as written.

I have never seen such a shameful and ridiculous run of apathy in an agency specifically tasked with protecting people’s lives. This is like having police officers go after a weapons smuggling without ever being told what an RPG is or looks like, so then they call the chief from a warehouse knee-deep in explosives to say, “It’s okay here, chief, this warehouse is just full of what they call ‘rocket-propelled grenades’,” to which the chief replies, “Okay, whatever. By the way, your next case is about high-level corporate tax law—make sure you brush up on that this weekend.”

The NHTSA posted a response letter, in which the first sentence is “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) leads the world in protecting the driving public from vehicle safety defects.”

skeptical eyebrow

There’s an opening phrase to give your eyebrow a workout

It goes on to enumerate the number of defects that the agency caught, including changes already implemented to increase effectiveness and an agreement to implement the recommended improvements, but I think that whoever drafted the letter is missing the point. People died: people that didn’t have to die; people that the NHTSA is entrusted with protecting.

The NHTSA is estimated to be reformed by June 30, 2016. Here’s hoping that, the next time there is a brake defect, it will be seen by someone who knows how the new braking system works.