Editorial: Watchdog NHTSA must fix its own defects
The tables are turning on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Congress is calling on the watchdog agency, charged with holding automakers to high standards of protecting motorists, to police its own performance.
It’s about time. NHTSA is a mess.
A government audit found the agency is so plagued with internal competency issues that it cannot effectively fulfill its mission of protecting the public.
The report concludes that breakdowns in the process for assessing safety complaints have resulted in regulators overlooking early warning signs of potentially dangerous defects, including the General Motors Corp. ignition switch issues that led to a massive recall in 2014.
Among the shortcomings cited are such basic functions such as alerting consumers on how to file a safety complaint, reading through the complaints when they are filed and providing adequate training to agency staff.
The response from NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind was so typical of the federal bureaucracy when its failures are exposed — give us more staff and money and we’ll fix the problem.
Congress, to its credit, isn’t buying. At a Senate committee hearing this week, NHTSA faced bipartisan pushback on its funding request. Senators, including Michigan’s Gary Peters, a Democrat, insisted the agency must first prove it can use its existing resources well.
The audit was prompted by the GM recall of ignition switches linked to 117 deaths. It raised serious questions about whether NHTSA could have intervened a decade earlier, when evidence first surfaced that the defect disabled air bags in some cases.
The report noted NHTSA sets aside about 90 percent of the 330 complaints it gets daily without thoroughly screening them. Agency employees complain that they are not properly trained in the areas they’re assigned to investigate.
Rosekind promised the senators that he is responding to the audit’s findings, and has a plan to eliminate the agency’s defects.
This is essential. NHTSA’s role is not just to play “gotcha” with the automakers in finding areas where their products are deficient.
It ideally is a full partner with the industry in tracking consumer complaints to determine a pattern that could be an early indicator of serious problems.
Rosekind is asking Congress for the ability to impose larger fines on the automakers, proposing to raise the current $35 million cap to $350 million. It also wants imminent hazard authority to remove dangerous vehicles from the roadways.
But before it gets any additional powers to punish automakers, it should make sure it is meeting its obligation to help the industry identify and address defects.
And certainly private industry should not be subject to penalties issued by an agency that can’t verify the accuracy or completeness of its data, as the audit found is the case with NHTSA.
This is a vital agency for protecting the public and for helping the industry put on the road the safest vehicles possible. NHTSA must fix itself, and quickly.