Audit report blisters NHTSA for 'insufficient' defect investigations

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 6/22/2015

The Office of Inspector General has deemed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and its Office of Defects Investigation to be “insufficient” due to a “lack of detailed guidance” in a scalding audit report. OIG’s audit comes after 8.7 million General Motors vehicles were recalled last year. More than 100 fatalities and 220 injuries occurred as a result of the defect.

Following the massive recall in February 2014, testimony during an April 2014 Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance Subcommittee hearing in the Senate revealed that NHTSA would assess ODI’s process. OIG was tapped by the Secretary of Transportation to conduct a separate assessment of NHTSA procedures and whether or not the agency possessed information about GM’s ignition switch defect that was the center of the recall.

In its audit, OIG looked into ODI’s procedures for collecting vehicle safety data, analyzing data and identifying potential safety issues, and determining which of these issues should be further investigated. Here is what the audit report found:

  • ODI’s process for collecting vehicle safety data is insufficient and lacks detailed guidance on what information should be reported.
  • ODI’s process for verifying that manufacturers submit complete and accurate early warning reporting data is insufficient.
  • Consumer complaints lack detail, including information to correctly identify the vehicle systems involved.
  • ODI does not thoroughly screen consumer complaints.
  • ODI does not follow standard statistical practices when analyzing early warning reporting data.
  • ODI does not adequately train or supervise staff.
  • ODI’s process for determining when to investigate potential safety defects is insufficient.
  • ODI’s investigation decisions lack transparency and accountability.

The report details how the lack of detailed guidance has left decisions regarding early warning reporting data to the discretion of manufacturers. ODI’s inability to follow standard statistical practices prevented the agency from differentiating trends from outliers. In terms of accountability and transparency, ODI does not always document its justifications for its decisions not to investigate potential safety issues. Furthermore, the agency does not always make timely decisions on opening investigations.

According to the report, ODI received early warning reporting data and consumer complaints regarding the GM ignition switch defect more than a decade before GM notified the agency last February. The information ODI received was void of sufficient detail or was inconsistently categorized. From January 2003 to February 2014, ODI received more than 9,000 complaints related to the GM ignition switch defect.

OIG will conduct a separate audit to determine whether or not NHTSA has implemented any of OIG’s 2011 recommendations regarding processes for identifying and addressing safety defects. That report is scheduled to be released later this year.

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