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Audits continue to show major dysfunction within the NHTSA

Throughout much of the past decade, Americans have been subjected to a series of major auto recall scandals, one after another. Right now, Takata is in the spotlight for its dangerous and defective air bags. Before that, General Motors took major criticism for its defective ignition switches. Before that, Toyota faced fines, litigation and investigations related to its vehicles' problems with sudden, unintended acceleration.

There are many parallels between these scandals, including the fact that all three involved defects that were discovered years before the information became public. Another parallel: How slowly and poorly these incidents were addressed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The NHTSA is a subset of the Department of Transportation, and is largely responsible for regulating safety issues in the auto industry. But several audits of the agency's performance - including a recent one - have shown that the NHTSA continues to drag its feet on implementing important changes that would make it more effective. These include changes the NHTSA first agreed to make after a similar audit in 2011.

According to the DOT's Office of Inspector General, the NHTSA:

  • Continually fails to complete safety investigations in a timely manner and fails to explain why such delays occurred
  • Has failed to retain important safety records
  • Has failed to implement a program to train vehicle defect investigators
  • Has failed to create "mechanisms to ensure that staff consistently apply" changes the NHTSA is trying to implement

In the past, the NHTSA has blamed its inefficacy on inadequate funding and a lack of enforcement authority. Both of those things may be true, but these audits suggest that the agency is also suffering from serious problems of its own making.

Until or unless the NHTSA gets its own house in order, it is difficult to see how the agency could prevent the next inevitable recall crisis.

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