Senators urge NHTSA to speed early warning reforms

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Two U.S. senators want the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to expand early warning reporting requirements for automakers in the wake of the agency's findings that several automakers have not complied with the rules.

Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., noted that as part of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV record setting $105 million civil penalty for failing to properly carry out two dozens recalls it must provide the agency "with comprehensive reporting on each death or injury incident that is reportable to the agency."

The senators said "these steps are a substantial improvement over previous handling of safety recalls and reflect the direction the senators are calling on NHTSA to move in, but the lawmakers want NHTSA to go further by making such information public and applicable to all automakers, not just the one."

“The longer NHTSA waits to issue new requirements that automakers automatically submit all early warning documents related to potentially fatal defects and that NHTSA make this information available to the public one a user-friendly website, the higher the chance that the next fatal defect goes undetected,” the senators wrote to NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “It is time to recall our defective early warning reporting system and issue new rules to detect fatal defects.”

NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge declined to comment and referred questions to Rosekind's Senate testimony in June.

In June, the Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General said NHTSA must reform how automakers submit early warning data. NHTSA specifies 24 broad codes for categorizing early warning reporting data. But NHTSA says "an average vehicle may have over 15,000 components. Without detailed guidance, decisions regarding key aspects of early warning reporting data are left to the manufacturers’ discretion—resulting in inconsistent reporting and data that (NHTSA) and vehicle safety advocates consider to be of little use."

NHTSA said it plans to toughen early warning reporting rules by next June — unless it is required to write legally binding regulations, which could take longer,

The audit found that NHTSA's efforts for verifying that manufacturers submit complete and accurate early warning reporting data are lacking. NHTSA "does not follow standard statistical practices when analyzing early warning reporting data, such as establishing a base case for what statistical test results would look like in the absence of safety defects," the audit found. NHTSA doesn't ensure it is getting accurate information and the audit found generally relies on the "honor" system.

NHTSA has the authority to inspect manufacturers’ records for compliance with early warning reporting, but it has never used the authority. In one case, NHTSA knew a major recreational vehicle manufacturer was not complying but did not take action for nearly a decade.

Many of the audits 17 recommendations called for reforms, including developing "a method for assessing and improving the quality of early warning reporting data" and requiring automakers to develop procedures for complying with early warning reporting requirements; and require NHTSA to review these procedures at times.

NHTSA has vowed to comply with all of the recommendations by next year.

The senators introduced legislation earlier this year — the Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act — that would require automobile and parts manufacturers to submit accident reports or other document that first alerted them to a fatality involving their vehicle or equipment to NHTSA’s Early Warning Reporting database. NHTSA would then required to automatically make those documents public unless they are exempted from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

In January, NHTSA fined Honda Motor Co. $70 million for failing to disclose more than 1,700 reports of deaths, injuries and other "early warning" over more than a decade — then the largest auto safety fine in U.S. history.

The Japanese automaker initially admitted in November it violated two sections of a 2000 federal law that requires automakers to disclose reports to NHTSA. The company has agreed to pay the maximum $35 million fine allowable under each section as part of a consent agreement for failing to turn over different types of reports.

"We're talking about 11 years — 11 years of information we did not have — and it is egregious," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in January. He said it didn't matter why Honda failed to follow the law. "Good intentions don't help the automaker," Foxx said, saying NHTSA is taking a "very aggressive posture."

Foxx said NHTSA has asked all automakers to audit their early warning reporting systems to make sure they are in compliance with the reporting law. "We have to continue to do better on our end but we sure want to send a signal very clearly to the industry that they have an end to this responsibility to take on as well," Foxx said.

In November, Honda disclosed that since 2003 it had made a series of significant mistakes in failing to report more than 1,700 incidents. It came under harsh criticism in Congress. Honda blamed a faulty computer program and inadvertent data entry and coding errors as reasons for failing to report problems, but the automaker also said it didn't do enough to fix the problem. After reports first surfaced that Honda hadn't complied with reporting requirements, it commissioned an audit in September to determine how often and why it failed to comply with requirements.

The reporting requirements are designed to help the auto safety agency spot safety trends earlier. They are required under the TREAD Act, which Congress approved after 270 reported deaths in Ford SUVs were linked to faulty Firestone tires.