Congress: NHTSA must do better
Washington — Congressional leaders said Monday the nation's auto safety agency "must do better" in the wake of a scathing report from the Transportation Department's inspector general.
The 42-page-report — first reported by The Detroit News Friday and made public Monday — said the agency has suffered a series of significant failures in overseeing auto safety issues.
The report said NHTSA fails to carefully review safety issues, hold automakers accountable for safety lapses, carefully collect vehicle safety data, or properly train or supervise its staff. And it says NHTSA rejects most staff requests to open investigations into suspected defects.
"Collectively, these weaknesses have resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked," the report found.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, the chair of the subcommittee that oversees NHTSA; and Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania, who heads the subcommittee on investigations, released a joint statement. It said NHTSA's "own watchdog has just concluded that the agency wasn't fully up to the job. We always thought part of the problem was the failure of NHTSA and the inspector general report confirms it. They can do better, and indeed we believe they must do better."
Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said the report lays out in "blistering detail the many lapses in policy, protocol, decision making and judgment on the part of the agency as it investigated the faulty GM ignition switch."
The report says NHTSA personnel, for years, ignored complaints that air bags failed to deploy in GM cars — and charges that the agency didn't document why it didn't investigate them. In November 2007, the agency declined to open a formal investigation into deaths in the cars. But an associate administrator said NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation should keep an eye on the issue. A screener assigned to keep tabs on it left the agency in 2008, and nobody was reassigned that responsibility.
"The Inspector General's new report further underscores ... our assertions that NHTSA has failed to use, disclose and in some cases even understand reports and documents it obtains from automakers and consumers that are supposed to provide early warnings of deadly automobile defects," said Senators Markey and Blumenthal. "We are encouraged that NHTSA agrees with the recommendations made in this scalding indictment of its past ineptitude and indifference to the lives that were lost as a result. Now, the best way to ensure that this ... tragedy isn't replayed again in the future is to empower the public and make public the information NHTSA has historically ignored. ... It is also clear NHTSA needs sharper teeth, which is why we plan to continue fighting for legislation that expands the agency's civil and criminal penalty authority to compel compliance with the law."
Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee that is holding a hearing Tuesday on NHTSA and the new report, said it "raises serious concerns, including NHTSA's inability to conduct accurate analysis, as well as its failure to provide necessary training and supervision to its staff."
Thune said "fundamental failings within NHTSA crippled efforts to identify vehicle defects causing deaths and injuries."
Both NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind and Inspector General Calvin Scovel will testify. Scovel's report makes 17 recommendations for reforms at NHTSA; Rosekind said the agency will make all of them by June 2016.
In a letter to the inspector general, Rosekind said NHTSA already is addressing many of the problems cited in the audit. He told the inspector general that NHTSA has a new training plan for staff to gain proficiency in new automotive and investigative technologies. NHTSA didn't immediately comment on new criticism from Congress.
Thune said the report shows that more than money is needed at NHTSA. The White House asked Congress to triple NHTSA's defects office budget and double its staff. NHTSA has said its defects office budget has fallen by 23 percent over the last decade after adjusting for inflation.
"NHTSA's mismanagement of resources means key safety defects may not even be targeted for investigation. This new audit is littered with instances in which NHTSA repeatedly dropped the ball when it had chances to identify the existence and causes of significant vehicle safety defects. These issues cannot be solved just by throwing money at the department. NHTSA owes the public an explanation," Thune said.
The House Republicans said it would work closely with NHTSA to see reforms in place.
"Our own review of NHTSA showed an agency that has too often struggled to keep pace with changing vehicle technology, with information silos preventing the right people from connecting the dots and identifying defects sooner to save more lives," said Upton, Murphy and Burgess. "With new leadership at the helm and this new road map for reform, we look forward to working closely with NHTSA to institute the types of reforms needed to keep drivers and passengers safe."