U.S. auditor finds sweeping problems at NHTSA

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A devastating year-long government audit finds sweeping problems at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and says the agency failed repeatedly over a decade to discover the General Motors ignition switch defect now linked to more than 110 deaths.

The scathing 42-page report by the Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General says that NHTSA, the nation's auto safety regulator, 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.

The Detroit News obtained the report Friday from a government official; it is set to be released Monday, a spokesman for the inspector general said.

The report makes 17 major recommendations for widespread reforms. The agency's new administrator, Mark Rosekind, who took office in December, has agreed to "aggressively implement" them by next June.

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.

Last year, 2.59 million Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars were recalled for defective ignition switches that can inadvertently shut off the engine and disable power steering and air bags. The automaker delayed recalling the cars for nearly a decade after some within GM became aware there was a problem. GM paid a $35 million fine in May 2014 because it failed to disclose ignition switch defects to NHTSA.

In February, the White House asked Congress to triple the budget for the beleaguered NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) and double its staff. NHTSA said its defects investigation office ideally would have another 380 workers; it now has 60.

The inspector general's report suggests NHTSA has suffered severe systemic problems for years in how it trains staff, and in deciding when and how to investigate defects. It said NHTSA's investigation decisions "lack transparency and accountability. Specifically, ODI does not always document the justifications for its decisions not to investigate potential safety issues and does not always make timely decisions on opening investigations."

Furthermore, the audit says NHTSA ignores 90 percent of consumer complaints that arrive daily. A single reviewer spends just "seconds" reading each. Last year, NHTSA had a screener initially review 78,000 complaints — roughly 330 complaints each day. And that person had to spend half the workday on other duties.

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 referred questions to Rosekind's letter.

Rosekind and Inspector General Calvin Scovel are among witnesses who will testify at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on auto safety Tuesday. NHTSA has come under harsh criticism from Congress since 2010 for failing to detect auto defects earlier.

The audit found consumer complaints lack detail and consumers are unable to upload online supporting documents. In the GM ignition case, complaints were received as early as 2003.

In 2007, NHTSA declined to open a formal investigation into air bag non-deployment in 2003-06 Cobalts and Ions, despite an urgent request from a senior investigator. By then, there were four fatal crashes, 29 complaints and 14 field reports.

The following year, the Defects Assessment Division chief requested a special crash investigation for air bag non-deployment in a 2005 Cobalt. But the Office of Defects Investigation did not follow up on the results, the audit found. Two staff members reviewed findings in 2010, but neither reported the results. One said he wasn't responsible for safety issues.

The second said he would only have noted issues in his area of concentration: engine, power train and speed control.

Automakers must submit "early warning reports" on deaths and some serious crashes to NHTSA to help the agency spot defect trends.

But the report found NHTSA isn't getting complete and accurate early warning data. It has ignored some data for years because it is not in a format the agency can use. In one case, NHTSA didn't take action even though it knew a major recreational vehicle manufacturer didn't properly submit the information for a decade.

Agency officials who must interpret statistical test results for early warning reports told investigators they have no training or background in statistics. Three people assigned to analyze air bags lacked training in that area.

Since screeners don't know why investigations are approved or rejected, they "largely rely on precedent and professional judgment to determine which issues merit investigation. One screener told us he uses his 'gut feeling' when reviewing complaints to gauge the 'appetite' of the office for specific issues," the report said. Screeners said they are hesitant to propose investigations if similar proposals have been previously rejected.

One screener said meetings focus on reasons for not opening an investigation rather than reasons for opening one; another called them "dog and pony shows."

About 70 percent of investigations in 2011 and 2012 resulted in recalls. A NHTSA investigative division chief said "repeatedly opening investigations that do not result in a recall could cause (the Office of Defect Investigation) to lose credibility with manufacturers." That decision, the report found, "creates the potential for missed opportunities to investigate issues that have serious safety implications."