According to a government report released on Thursday, the U.S. auto safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has consistently failed to meet internal timelines for completing auto safety defect investigations. This failure hinders the agency’s ability to promptly respond to significant safety risks. The report, conducted by the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General, examined a sample of NHTSA investigations from 2018 to 2019 and found that 26 out of 27 investigations did not meet the agency’s timeliness targets. It also highlighted other deficiencies in the agency’s review of safety defects.
Despite NHTSA’s efforts to improve the situation, such as holding regular investigation reviews and attempting to tighten timelines, the report concluded that these measures had not led to timely defect investigations. The lack of timeliness not only compromises the agency’s capacity to address rapidly evolving or severe safety risks but also undermines its public accountability.
NHTSA is required to conduct defect investigations before it can compel automakers to initiate recalls for vehicles that pose significant safety hazards. The agency has set a target of 120 days for completing preliminary evaluations and one year for completing engineering analyses.
In the sample of NHTSA investigations from 2018 and 2019, the report revealed that preliminary evaluations remained open for an average of 617 days, while engineering analyses remained open for an average of 1,001 days. These prolonged timelines indicate a substantial delay in addressing safety concerns.
Deputy NHTSA Administrator Sophie Shulman responded to the report, emphasizing that exceeding internal timelines did not necessarily imply insufficiency in the agency’s safety interventions. She stated that NHTSA does not wait until an investigation is closed to hold manufacturers accountable for addressing safety defects.
The report also highlighted concerns expressed by NHTSA Office of Defect Investigation (ODI) staff. These concerns included limited resources, being overwhelmed by a surge in correspondence, issues with management decision-making and approval processes, documentation reviews, and the agency’s interactions with manufacturers. The report recommended that NHTSA hire 26 additional ODI employees to enhance defect identification, investigation, and recall management.
Additionally, the report criticized NHTSA’s reliance on outdated, decentralized databases and noted a lack of consistent compliance with issue escalation processes, which could further contribute to delays in investigating and addressing critical safety issues.
In response to the report, NHTSA stated that it had already taken actions to fully implement half of the recommendations provided. However, the agency’s effectiveness and efficiency in addressing safety defects remain a subject of concern.
It is worth mentioning that President Joe Biden recently withdrew the nomination of the acting head of NHTSA for the permanent administrator position. This decision comes after NHTSA operated without a Senate-confirmed administrator for much of the past six years, highlighting the need for stable leadership within the agency.