Hey, Traffic Safety Regulators, Do Your Jobs

Alarming Failure to Fix Problems Five Years After Report of Federal Agency Shortcoming 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is tasked with developing and enforcing important safety regulations. The federal agency is expected to respond quickly and effectively to safety violations and to implement measures for increasing the safety of our roads and vehicles. Unfortunately, the federal transportation agency has fallen short of its basic function. 

A 2011 internal audit found a laundry list of problems within the agency. In response, the Department of Transportation inspector general recommended a list of changes to increase the effectiveness of the NHTSA. A new report found that the agency failed to adopt many of the recommendations. 

The NHTSA responded to the scathing criticism that the agency plans to enact all of the inspector general’s recommendations by June 30. I won’t hold my breath.

What Went Wrong?

The original audit arose out of the Toyota recall debacle. The defective cars would suddenly accelerate. Numerous accidents resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries and even sent an innocent man to jail for vehicular manslaughter. Many deaths and injuries that could have been avoided had the auto corporation or the NHTSA responded more quickly. Toyota was fined $1.2 billion for the unintended acceleration defect. But for the families who lost their loved ones, the money means very little.  

The auditors found that the NHTSA failed to heed obvious red flags in the Toyota case and several other defective vehicle cases, including General Motors’ defective ignition switch. Upon identifying a problem, the agency  failed to use its authority to take action. 

NHTSA’s Path Forward

The agency acknowledged its failures and announced a “path forward” to implement improvements, including:

  • Increasing the automakers’ accountability for safety defects
  • Increasing the training of NHTSA staff
  • Improving the training in new vehicle technologies that affect auto safety
  • Enhancing data management, analysis and sharing 
  • Improving the tools used to evaluate auto defects
  • Communicating and coordinating between investigators and the agency

Responsibilities of Automakers and the NHTSA

In a January speech to automakers, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind admitted that “a proactive safety culture doesn’t avoid talk of problems.” 

The NHTSA Administrator also blasted the “era of Big Recall.” 

As a DFW personal injury attorney with 35 years of experience, I agree. Recalls should be the last resort. A recall typically doesn’t happen until lots of people have been hurt or killed. A responsible automaker discovers flaws before the vehicle is released and immediately fixes problems that unexpectedly occur. A proactive agency, as NHTSA should be, should catch safety violations and wrongdoing before anyone is injured.

This is the agency we Americans expect to see fighting for motorists and guaranteeing that our roads and vehicles are safe.

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