NHTSA under fire for its recall management processes

Aug. 12, 2015
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has come under fire for what a new report characterizes as dysfunction and mismanagement of automotive recalls.

The explosion in automotive safety recalls has cost automakers billions of dollars, and put the industry under increased scrutiny. Now the agency tasked with managing those safety recalls, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has come under fire for what a new report characterizes as dysfunction and mismanagement of automotive recalls.

In June, the Transportation Department Inspector General's Office issued a blistering report that criticized NHTSA for failing to hold automakers accountable for safety issues, not training or supervising staff, and failing to open safety investigations.

At a hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee that month, senators threatened to cut off NHTSA's funding unless there were significant reforms.

"This isn't about resources. This is about blatant incompetent mismanagement," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) during the hearing. "You can't start throwing money until you have a system in place to make this agency function like it's supposed to."

The report was spurred, in part, by the agency's handling of the General Motors ignition switch recall.

According to the report, just one screener working four hours per day handles the hundreds of complaints the agency receives each day, and 90 percent of those complaints are ignored. NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) lacks the good data and detailed guidance on the information that manufacturers and consumers should report to the agency.

The report also found that "ODI does not follow standard statistical practices when analyzing early warning reporting data, such as establishing a base case for what statistical test results would look like in the absence of safety defects. Consequently, ODI cannot differentiate trends and outliers that represent random variation from those that are statistically significant."

ODI has not developed consistent guidance on when to open an investigation, and the investigations lack transparency and accountability. Of the 56 investigation proposals for light vehicle safety defects in 2013, 32 were not investigated, and 18 of those lacked any documented justification for not investigating.

In fact, the ODI did not investigate or adequately monitor GM air bag non-deployment and ignition switch issues because of those types of failures. ODI declined to investigate the GM air bag issue in 2007, without documenting why the agency came to that conclusion.

The report concludes with 17 specific recommendations for NHTSA, including improving early warning reporting data, developing internal guidance on the use of oversight and enforcement tools, providing better guidance for consumer complaints, instituting a quality control process to ensure complaints are reviewed correctly, and improving investigation procedures.

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told the Senate panel that the agency is responding to 10 of the 17 recommendations in the inspector general's report, and that all of them will be completed by June 2016.

In early June, NHTSA announced reports outlining changes the agency adopted to strengthen its defect investigation workforce. The Department of Transportation also announced the formation of a three-person Safety Systems Team (SST) of outside experts that will advise NHTSA on implementing these changes. NHTSA also formed a Risk Control Innovations Program to address safety risks that fall outside of the agency's specialized programs.

The SST will be comprised of Dr. Joseph Kolly of the National Transportation Safety Board; Dr. J. Victor Lebacqz, formerly of NASA; and Dr. James Baglan, director of the Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety at the University of Michigan.

“NHTSA has identified improvements, some already in progress and some we plan to make, to better investigate, identify and remedy defects that threaten public safety,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement announcing the programs. “With the SST, we are enlisting three of the most experienced and knowledgeable safety professionals in the world to help us implement these changes. And with the Risk Control Innovations Program, we are breaking down stovepipes and reaching into offices from across NHTSA to address safety risks.”

Recalls have increased significantly over the past several years, which has put more of a spotlight on automakers and NHTSA. Even with this increased attention, drivers frequently fail to have recommended recall repairs completed, even when they are considered critical to vehicle safety. In April, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers announced a major research initiative to study consumer attitudes about recalls, and why those vehicle repairs are made or not made.

"We want every consumer who gets a recall notice to take his or her vehicle to be repaired," said Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO, Auto Alliance. "It’s important for us to fully understand what the critical first step is to motivate more people to bring in their vehicles for service. We know that vehicle age seems to be an important factor, but little research has been conducted on consumer attitudes to recalls. We can only speculate on why consumers who receive multiple notices do not repair their vehicles for free, so learning more about consumer perspectives is imperative to increasing the effectiveness of the program."

Subscribe to Aftermarket Business World and receive articles like this every month….absolutely free. Click here.

Sponsored Recommendations

Service Done Right #27: Step-by-Step Installation of Duralast Loaded Struts and Shocks

Following the proper installation process when repairing any vehicle is key to keeping your vehicle safe and on the road. Today, Richard Morgan walks us through the correct installation...

Why Pentastar Oil Filter Housings Leak

Video: Learn why oil filter housings on the Pentastar V6 are prone to leaking and how you can offer your customers a real solution to this problem.

VVT Components; Why They're a Smarter Choice over OE and Other Aftermarket VVT Solenoids

Video: More and more vehicles are entering service bays with variable valve timing issues. Learn why reaching for Standard and Blue Streak VVT Components makes more sense than...

Emissions Training Series

Standard Professional Video Training Series: Emission Control Components. This all-new video training series has been created specifically for professional technicians and offers...

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Vehicle Service Pros, create an account today!