Inspector General: NHTSA has made improvements in detecting defects

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 4/24/2014

Testifying before a congressional subcommittee earlier this month, Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III highlighted three areas where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has improved on detecting defects and critiqued one area that still needs improvement.

In testimony by Scovel before the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance, the IG discussed the efficiency and weaknesses of the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation.

Back in 2011, Scovel addressed four key points that NHTSA needed to improve on in its processes for identifying vehicle safety defects. Three years later, the inspector general has found that NHTSA has made the needed changes on three of the four recommendations.

The four areas that needed improvement were better use of the database; involving outside groups for assistance; proper documentation; and an efficient; well-trained workforce. Scovel found improvements in all categories except for the analysis of the workforce.

The first weakness that was found in was NHTSA’s inadequate processes for determining whether or not an investigation into a defect was needed. ODI uses computer software called Artemis, which compiles information on motor vehicle and motor vehicle equipment defects.

In 2011, it was found that Artemis failed to track whether complaints were reviewed within an established timeline nor was it found to be used to support investigations. Scovel acknowledged that NHTSA took sufficient action to correct the issues.

Second, Scovel reported that NHTSA did not efficiently involve third-party assistance when needed. Due to a lack of direct access to test facilities, ODI investigators often have to bring in third parties to test for defects. The inspector general’s office found in 2011 that third parties were not called in when needed because NHTSA did not have a process to identify such a need. In his recent testimony, Scovel concluded that NHTSA satisfactorily addressed third-party issues.

Third on the list of improvements was ODI’s inability to properly document investigations. According to Scovel’s recent testimony, “some investigation files did not include documentation of meetings with manufacturers and third parties, consumer complaints, testing needs, and justifications for closing investigations.” Since 2011, NHTSA has addressed the issue by establishing an “Investigation Documentation Checklist.”

The final recommendation for improvement – an efficient, well-trained workforce – was revisited with less applause. It was suggested that a workforce assessment be conducted to determine the number of staff and the specialized skills needed. That assessment has not been done. NHTSA plans to complete that assessment by May 30, 2014.

If ODI puts the recommendations and processes to good use, Scovel believes it will allow NHTSA to more efficiently identify and investigate vehicle safety defects.

ODI conducts tests, inspections and investigations to find any defects in vehicles and vehicle equipment. NHTSA applies ODI’s findings to mandate manufacturer recalls notifying the public and correcting defects.

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