Federal shutdown put drivers at risk, safety groups say
Washington — The five-week partial government shutdown hobbled the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s ability to enforce automotive recalls and investigate thousands of complaints about potential safety defects, according to groups that advocate for highway safety.
They say the 35-day shutdown hampered the National Transportation Safety Board's efforts to investigate accidents, which could have ramifications down the line for automakers' ability to learn from crash reports.
NHTSA, which furloughed 331 employees during the shutdown, issued zero recalls in January. Safety groups say the shutdown took a toll on NHTSA’s ability to enforce automotive recalls.
The groups have encouraged Kia and Hyundai to recall approximately 3 million cars that they argue are at risk of having their engines catch fire, but the South Korean automaker has thus far only recalled 168,000.
NHTSA launched an investigation of the Kia and Hyundai complaints in August, but was unable to compel the South Korean automakers to broaden the scope of their recall because the transportation department was shut down, said Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety.
"There was no one at NHTSA to say 'What are you doing? That's not enough,'" he said, noting that there was no one at the agency to review complaints that are typically used to determine if other investigations should be launched.
"During the 35 days, NHTSA was still receiving complaints, but there was no one there to review them," Levine said, noting complaints sent to NHTSA often prompt investigations that led to recalls if officials at the agency spot trends.
Absent NHTSA's oversight, Levine said, "manufacturers have carte blanche to decide what they're going to do, because there's no cop on the beat when there's a shutdown."
NHTSA did not respond to request for comment.
Hyundai disputes the idea that the shutdown affected its handling of the recall, which involved 100,000 Hyundai vehicles as well as 68,000 Kias. The company said it was in touch with NHTSA before the shutdown on issues related to recalled cars and decided it could not wait for the gridlock in Washington to end to inform drivers of the potential problems with their cars.
"Our taking actions during the shutdown should be commended as it was the fastest way for us to act and the best way for us to keep our customers safe as far as these issues are concerned," Jim Trainor, director of communications for Hyundai, said in an email.
"We had no idea how long the shutdown was going to last and felt it was clearly in the best interest of our customers to get to them as quickly as possible."
Additionally, the NTSB says it could not dispatch investigators to study 22 crashes that occurred between Dec. 21, when the shutdown began, and Jan. 25, when lawmakers reached a deal to reopen the government. That included two crashes resulting in seven fatalities and 15 injuries. The transportation safety board also said it had to stop 21 accident investigations that already were underway.
NHTSA is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, one of 12 federal agencies not funded during the 35-day partial government shutdown. The NTSB is an independent agency that also saw an interruption in its funding.
In addition to the furloughed NHTSA workers, the shutdown plan that was posted to the DOT's website in December said important rulemakings, including those with congressional deadlines, and that new-car testing and safety star-ratings would be delayed. And the deal reached by lawmakers to re-open the governmentextended funding for shuttered agencies like NHTSA only until Feb. 15, so the agency could be facing another shutdown in two weeks.
David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union and a former acting NHTSA administrator during the Obama administration, said NHTSA employees likely are facing a large backlog in their first weeks back at work.
He said NHTSA receives 100,000 to 150,000 complaints from drivers per year, which are typically used to form the basis of investigations that often lead to recalls.
"A human looks at every single one, trying to figure is this a high risk?" he said. "Now you're going to have folks coming in and they're going to have to plow through them."
Referring to the massive recall of exploding air-bag inflators, he asked: "Is the next Takata in there? I don't know."
The auto industry is fortunate there was not a high-profile crash linked to a safety defect NHTSA missed during the shutdown, said John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog group.
"The fact is, (NHTSA) couldn't do some of the inspections and look at recalls they should have during the shutdown," he said. "We're lucky there wasn't a travesty. It was certainly the type of thing that can hurt all of us."