The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the top U.S. auto safety regulator, has failed to make a number of safety improvements agreed to in 2011 in areas including staff oversight and the training of vehicle defect investigators, A federal audit released on Feb. 29 had that message. The Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General said NHTSA had not done enough to implement the changes aimed at protecting car drivers and passengers that were agreed to after its 2011 audit of the agency. Safety advocates have repeatedly complained about NHTSA’s perceived “sluggish response” to major auto safety issues and evidence of potentially deadly defects in vehicles on U.S. roadways including defective airbags, runaway cars and faulty ignition switches. Lawyers in our firm can attest to that ruling.

The 2011 audit was conducted after criticism of NHTSA’s handling of consumer complaints about the sudden unintended acceleration of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles that our firm was involved in. After our “Bookout verdict” in Oklahoma, Toyota ultimately recalled more than 14 million vehicles worldwide due to the issue. The new report found NHTSA failed in a majority of cases to explain why it delayed completing investigations in a timely fashion. The agency also failed to ensure it was retaining safety records and had not implemented a training program, it said. The report said further:

As a result, (NHTSA’s defects investigation) staff may not be sufficiently trained to identify and investigate potential vehicle defects, or ensure that vehicle manufacturers take prompt and effective action.

Concern was also voiced about what was described as NHTSA’s “lack of mechanisms to ensure that staff consistently apply” changes. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said NHTSA needs to do more. He said in a statement:

For the past two years, I have voiced serious concern about NHTSA’s ability to detect and deal with new safety hazards. This report confirms those concerns – NHTSA needs to step it up before we see more mass recalls.

The new audit follows a critical audit by the same office issued in June in the aftermath of General Motors Co.’s recalls of defective ignition switches linked to 124 deaths and 275 injuries. That audit found NHTSA failed to carefully investigate safety issues, hold automakers accountable, collect data or properly train and supervise staff. It also found the agency rejected most requests by staff to open new investigations. A NHTSA spokesman, Gordon Trowbridge, said that the agency agrees with all of the recommendations in both the new audit and last year’s audit and “intends to implement the recommendations by June 30.”


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