Auto reg­u­la­tor blasted in au­dit

Agency is hob­bled by over­bur­dened and un­der­trained staff, watchdog tes­ti­fies.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Colin Diers­ing colin. diers­ing@ latimes. com

NHTSA is hob­bled by over­bur­dened and un­der­trained staff, watchdog tes­tif ies.

WASHINGTON — The over­worked in­spec­tors re­spon­si­ble for iden­ti­fy­ing safety short­com­ings in cars failed to note prob­lems with ig­ni­tion switches in GM cars and lack the re­sources and pro­to­cols to pin­point fu­ture safety prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port and con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony Tues­day by the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion’s top watchdog.

The Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Of­fice of De­fects In­ves­ti­ga­tion missed op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­ves­ti­gate prob­lems in GM cars with air bags and ig­ni­tion switches, which have been linked to more than 100 deaths, In­spec­tor Gen­eral Calvin Scovel told a Se­nate hear­ing.

The ac­com­pa­ny­ing re­port was com­mis­sioned in re­sponse to GM’s re­call of 8.7 mil­lion ve­hi­cles for faulty ig­ni­tion switches to as­sess whether NHTSA should have iden­ti­fied prob­lems ear­lier.

Sen­a­tors im­me­di­ately crit­i­cized the agency.

“This au­dit re­port is one of the worst I’ve ever seen in terms of a gov­ern­ment agency,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill ( D- Mo.). “This is about bla­tant, in­com­pe­tent mis­man­age­ment.”

Fail­ure to prop­erly col­lect, in­ter­pret and in­ves­ti­gate data “re­sulted in sig­nif­i­cant safety con­cerns be­ing over­looked,” Scovel said.

The in­ves­tiga­tive of­fice fails to ver­ify in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by car man­u­fac­tures, de­spite know­ing that re­ports some­times mis­char­ac­ter­ize and down­play in­ci­dents — for ex­am­ple, avoid­ing use of the word “f ire” in ac­ci­dent re­ports — ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Au­di­tors were told the off ice re­lies on the honor sys­tem.

“The honor sys­tem just doesn’t work,” Cen­ter for Auto Safety Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Clarence Dit­low said in an in­ter­view, ar­gu­ing that car com­pa­nies have an in­cen­tive to down­play po­ten­tial prob­lems. “A re­call is some­thing that af­fects the bot­tom line.”

GM’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of some is­sues may have “masked po­ten­tial trends” about safety prob­lems, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Even when in­spec­tors iden­tify ques­tion­able re­ports, in­ves­ti­ga­tions can take years. De­spite learn­ing in 2004 that an un­named ma­jor recre­ational ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­turer had failed to re­port death and in­jury data, the de­fects in­ves­ti­ga­tion of­fice waited al­most a decade to take ac­tion, Scovel told sen­a­tors.

Staff mem­bers re­spon­si­ble for re­view­ing con­sumer re­ports of ac­ci­dents, mean­while, are over­bur­dened and un­der­trained, Scovel said.

A sin­gle staff mem­ber is re­spon­si­ble for re­view­ing an av­er­age of 330 in­com­ing com­plaints a day and de­cid­ing which to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther, and staff re­spon­si­ble for spot­ting trends in com­plaints have no train­ing in sta­tis­tics, his in­ves­ti­ga­tion found. One per­son as­signed to re­view cases re­lated to air bags had no train­ing in air bags and no en­gi­neer­ing back­ground.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, the of­fice in­ves­ti­gates only about 10% of con­sumer com­plaints about safety, us­ing an in­con­sis­tent process for de­cid­ing which mer­ited more re­search.

For the years in which data were avail­able, only 3% of the com­plaints re­lated to re­called ve­hi­cles were in­ves­ti­gated. One staff mem­ber told in­ves­ti­ga­tors he re­lies on his “gut feel­ing” when de­ter­min­ing which in­ves­ti­ga­tions to pur­sue.

In his tes­ti­mony, NHTSA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Mark Rosekind said the ad­min­is­tra­tion would work to im­ple­ment the re­port’s rec­om­men­da­tions within one year, but also ar­gued he needs a big­ger bud­get to fund im­prove­ments in in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Rosekind, who has been on the job less than a year, tes­ti­fied that the bud­get is 23% lower than it was 10 years ago when ad­justed for inf la­tion.

McCaskill, though, said she thought re­sources alone would be in­suf­fi­cient to ad­dress the is­sues. “I’m not about to give you more money un­til I see mean­ing­ful progress on re­form­ing the in­ter­nal pro­cesses in this or­ga­ni­za­tion,” she said.

Drew Angerer Getty I mages

MARK ROSEKIND, left, ad­min­is­tra­tor at the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion, and Calvin Scovel, in­spec­tor gen­eral at the U. S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, at a Se­nate hear­ing Tues­day.

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