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Is NHTSA Working For the Public or Automakers?

by recycler on March 26, 2014

The U.S National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is under some heat from critics for possibly “being asleep at the wheel.”

Automobile recalls have become quite common. Most of the times, companies will find or be notified of a small issue, a recall is disseminated and the fix is quick and harmless. Personally, I have twice received a notification in the mail that my 2007 model Toyota I bought new in 2006 needed to be brought by the dealer for a minor recall. Both times I was in and out of the dealership within 20 minutes. It was something I was able to take care of on my way into work and I had no further cause for concern after the issue was remedied.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the issue is much more prevalent or much more dangerous than the extra sponge that was in my seat belt retractor. General Motors recently recalled 1.6 million cars for faulty ignition switches that can potentially shut off the engine and disable the airbags while a person is driving. Nissan is recalling more than a million vehicles that have a software issue that might disable the passenger airbags. And the most high-profile issue in recent history was the sudden acceleration issue Toyota made multiple recalls to fix.

Toyota just settled with the Justice Department for $1.2 billion to end a probe into whether it misled investigators about the issue. GM could soon face a similar investigation from the Justice Department.

Some critics aren’t just laying the blame on the automotive companies, but also on the NHTSA, who is supposed to be protecting the public.

Is NHTSA Working For the Public or Automakers?

The Cobalt was one of the recalled GM vehicles.

The General Motors recall is for 2003 to 2007 vehicles. What took the NHTSA so long? The Center for Auto Safety called out GM’s ignition issue months ago after analyzing the NHTSA’s own data, so why hadn’t the NHTSA made this discovery?

The executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow, told CNBC this isn’t a one-off NHTSA issue, but a patterned behavior.

Ditlow said NHTSA is understaffed and underfunded, but he also believes the agency “has gotten too cozy” with the auto industry.

“They now refer to the auto companies as ‘their customers.’ The American public is their customer. They regulate the auto industry,” Ditlow said.

Joan Claybrook, who was the head of the NHTSA from 1977 to 1981, believes the organization had enough information to force a recall all the way back in 2007.

The agency had consumer complaints, and reports from its own investigators. It even had service bulletins GM sent to its dealers outlining the problem.

“The agency did not open an investigation in the GM Cobalt case and in many other cases, I believe, because they decided that unless they had everything handed to them on a silver platter in terms of evidence and information, they didn’t have to act. And that’s just completely incorrect,” Claybrook said in an interview (with CNBC).

Consumers don’t know if there is a defective part or some other problem. You or I can’t check to make sure the car’s computer software executes every single command correctly. It’s not likely we are going to be able to identify and locate a hidden defect.

Federal organizations like the NHTSA are supposed to be working for us to help find these issues and force manufacturers to make the necessary changes. The watchdogs aren’t watching closely enough.

Massachusetts U.S. Senator Ed Markey said the NHTSA needs to be our warning system rather than problem notifier:

“Americans need NHTSA’s Early Warning Reporting system to actually provide early warnings, instead of just a rear view mirror look into what has already gone wrong. If NHTSA won’t take action to greatly increase public disclosure of information related to potential safety defects, I will introduce legislation ensuring that it does so.”

What do you think? Is the NHTSA doing enough or lacking in its watchdog duties? If not, what do you propose the NHTSA do?

Leave a comment and let us know your opinion.

***To check to see if your vehicle has ever been recalled, check out safercar.gov.

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