NHTSA seeks to reinvent itself—and keep drivers safer

The car-safety agency's reforms are long overdue

Published: June 19, 2015 04:00 PM

Following a series of massive safety recalls that have proved an embarrassment and generated concern about just how safe our cars are, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—NHTSA—has initiated a series of sweeping and long-overdue reforms.

The biggest recall misses by the federal government’s car-safety watchdog involved flimsy General Motors ignition switches that inappropriately shut off engine power and suppressed airbag deployments and potentially explosive Takata airbag inflators installed by 10 automakers over the span of a decade.

In both cases, automakers failed to send NHTSA critical information that would have indicated there was a safety defect. Nevertheless, it still took years for NHTSA to catch on to issues that could have been recognized and dealt with much sooner. Tens of millions of cars have been affected.

Two reports released by the agency this month, NHTSA’s Path Forward (pdf) and Workforce Assessment (pdf), outline just how weak the agency has been and map out steps to limit or eliminate future safety issues. If implemented—a big “if,” as the agency is asking for more money from a budget-slashing Congress—these changes could help keep us all safer on the road.

Among other goals, the agency seeks to upgrade its antiquated computer systems, hire additional and well-trained staff, step up its scrutiny of data supplied by the auto industry, and force automakers to provide better and more timely information.

These two reports were prompted by an internal review NHTSA conducted over the past year, and by a critical 2011 audit from the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General. A separate Inspector General audit of the agency is expected to be released sometime this summer.

One of the striking features in NHTSA’s self-portrait is just how under-resourced NHTSA is, especially given the scope of its work.

Learn more in our guide to car safety.

NHTSA is tasked with overseeing tens of thousands of consumer vehicle complaints annually to determine if safety recalls for passenger vehicles and equipment are necessary—a decision which happens close to 1,000 times a year.

But that’s just the beginning of the to-do list. NHTSA also conducts detailed crash investigations, compiles fatality and injury statistics, manages fuel economy standards (CAFE), polices all federal motor-vehicle safety standards (FMVSS), runs a comprehensive series of new-car crash tests (the familiar 5-Star ratings system), and other projects.

And before any self-driving car gets to hit the highway, it will be NHTSA’s task to develop the necessary standards and regulations to ensure they are safe for their drivers and to the rest of the driving public—and to protect the data streams running the automated cars from being hacked.

Much of the criticism leveled at NHTSA for its slow-motion response to long-simmering safety issues is aimed at the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) which investigates potential defects, gathers data from consumer safety complaints and the automakers, and administers the recalls system.

But ODI has a mere 50 full-time employees, responsible for monitoring the safety of the more than 265 million vehicles on the road. According to the Workforce Assessment document, ODI has only eight people screening data from consumers, which numbered 80,000 submissions last year alone. Four investigators examine “Early Warning” reports filed by the automakers, and 16 investigators conduct the formal defect investigations.

That report also draws a striking contrast between ODI and the resources of other federal safety agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It says that the rough equivalent of NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation is the FAA’s Office of Aviation Safety, which had 6,408 employees in 2014 and a budget of more than $1 billion. NHTSA’s entire safety-enforcement budget for 2014 was about $34 million, split between ODI and two other divisions.  

When Congress criticizes NHTSA officials for failing to spot defects earlier, which it does whenever a serious safety issue makes headlines, it’s worth considering how underfed its watchdog has been.

For starters, NHTSA is requesting an additional $24 million this year and 93 additional employees for ODI. But to staff what the agency’s analysis reckons is an effective level, NHTSA wants to eventually add 380 more people and an additional $89 million to its annual budget.  

We like a lot of what we see in NHTSA’s overhaul plan, which aims to make the agency more proactive and assertive.

However, the overhaul plan doesn’t say much about improvements to NHTSA’s consumer website, safercar.gov, where consumers go to file safety complaints, check for recalls, and see crash-test results. Using the site can be tedious and frustrating, demanding an antiquated drill-down search or a long slog through multiple menus.

We’ve found many safety-problem reports to be misclassified, duplicated, or hard to decipher. In some cases the safety-problem questionnaire form doesn’t supply a category appropriate for the problem someone wants to report.

If NHTSA wants consumers to feed it good data, it needs to make the website a whole lot friendlier to use.

In the meantime, we encourage you to continue to enter safety complaints as best you can.  

NHTSA has warned that things may get worse before they get better.  Increased vigilance will mean more recalls in the short term, and as vehicle systems become more complex, investigations will become more challenging, and consumer complaints will rise. All the more reason Congress should supply the funding for the added resources, both human and machine.   

Gordon Hard

Photo: NHTSA

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