Audit finds National Highway Traffic Safety Administration auto safety defect probes are too slow

Jun 1, 2023, 4:12 PM | Updated: 4:42 pm

DETROIT (AP) — The U.S. government agency charged with keeping the roads safe is slow to investigate automobile safety defects, limiting its ability to handle rapidly changing or severe risks, an audit made public Thursday found.

In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation doesn’t have an integrated computer system for its probes, and doesn’t consistently follow its own procedures for making problems a high priority, the audit found.

The Department of Transportation’s Inspector General found that the office has made progress in restructuring and modernizing its data and analysis systems. But weaknesses in meeting its own goals for timely investigations increase possible delays in probing important safety issues, the audit found.

“ODI’s lack of timeliness in completing investigations limits its ability to respond to rapidly evolving or severe risks to motor vehicle safety and ODI’s public accountability,” the audit said.

Messages were left Thursday evening seeking comment from NHTSA.

The agency set timeliness targets for its investigations, but the audit found that in 33 of 35 probes sampled by the inspector general over three years, it missed the targets.

“ODI does not consistently document information used for investigating and identifying potential defects and unsafe motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment in the agency’s internal and external files,” the audit said. “In addition, ODI does not consistently follow its procedures for issue escalation and lacks guidance for other pre-investigative efforts.”

The audit also faulted the defects investigation office for failing to update public files as an investigation progresses. In many cases, documents aren’t added to the files for several years.

The audit comes as NHTSA is trying to force a Tennessee air bag inflator company to recall 67 million inflators that could explode and hurl shrapnel at drivers and passengers. The agency sent a recall request letter to ARC Automotive Inc. in April, but the company refused the recall in May.

At least two people in the U.S. and Canada have died after the inflators ruptured, and seven more have been hurt.

The Office of Defects Investigation began investigating ARC’s inflators in 2015, but it took nearly eight years for the agency to seek the recall. In 2021, a 40-year-old mother of 10 was killed in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after an ARC inflator exploded in a relatively minor crash.

NHTSA made a tentative determination that ARC’s inflators are defective, and it has ordered the company to say whether it expects more inflators to rupture. ARC has until June 14 to respond. The next step in the process would be for NHTSA to hold a public hearing, and then possibly take the company to court to get a recall order.

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Audit finds National Highway Traffic Safety Administration auto safety defect probes are too slow