Auto Safety Oversight Lacking At NHTSA, According to Audit

A new government report warns that federal automobile regulators are lagging in their duties to investigate potential vehicle defects and to ensure automobiles on U.S. roadways are safe. 

The U.S. Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued an audit (PDF) of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on February 24, which indicates that the agency has failed to address a number of recommendations made in 2011.

The NHTSA recommended the audit amid concerns over its investigation of the General Motors (GM) ignition switch recall in 2014, which many critics claimed allowed millions of dangerous vehicles to remain on the road for years with airbags that may not deploy in the event of a crash.

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GM Ignition Recall Lawsuits

In 2014, GM Recalled 2.6M Vehicles Due to Risk of Airbag Failure from Defective Ignition Switches.

The GM recall affected millions of different vehicles that contained defective ignition switches, which may cause the vehicles to suddenly shut off if heavy key chains were used or if the ignition was jarred, such as might occur in an accident. This could cause drivers to lose control of the vehicle or prevented the airbags from deploying.

Hundreds of accidents and injuries have been linked to the recalled GM vehicles in recent years, resulting in hundreds of GM ignition switch lawsuits, and evidence has emerged that suggests officials of the auto maker and NHTSA may have known about the risk of problems for years.

In 2011, the OIG made 10 recommendations for improvements at the NHTSA, after a Toyota recall impacted millions of vehicles with a defect that may cause the cars to accelerate out of control.

In looking at how the agency was handling safety defects in the wake of the GM recall, OIG examined how the office had implemented its 2011 recommendations. According to the latest report, the agency has only adequately implemented three of the recommendations, six of the recommendations have not been applied consistently, and for one of the recommendations, the NHTSA developed a plan but has not yet implemented it.

“NHTSA’s ODI [Office of Defect Investigation] is responsible for identifying and investigating potential vehicle safety issues and requiring vehicle manufacturers to conduct recalls when warranted. Although NHTSA took actions to address all 10 of our 2011 recommendations, our review determined that ODI lacks sufficient quality control mechanisms to ensure compliance with the new policies and procedures, and lacks an adequate training program to ensure that its staff have the skills and expertise to investigate vehicle safety defects,” the report concludes. “Stronger internal controls and a robust training program will better position ODI to fulfill its mission to identify and investigate vehicle safety issues and ensure that manufacturers take needed corrective actions in the interest of public safety.”

The NHTSA has agreed to meet the OIG’s recommendations by June 30, 2016. The OIG will leave the matter open until it can conduct a final investigation at that time.

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