Some advocates are concerned that America’s top automotive safety watchdog may not be so watchful these days – and that the highways may become less safe as a result.
According to Consumer Reports, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched only 13 defect investigations in 2017, the fewest in its 47-year history. In previous years, the federal organization had conducted many more – 204 at its peak in 1989.
“The American public is relying on this agency to be a cop on the beat,” Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group, told Consumer Reports. “People expect the federal government to protect them. … Absent that, there’s going to be a tremendous void in motorist safety.”
But the agency, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), says that fewer investigations are needed these days, thanks to improved communication with the auto industry. The agency credits new, closer supervision of companies – prompted by safety scandals at General Motors (GM) in 2014 and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) in 2015 – for the reduction in the need for investigations. Legal agreements with the automakers are “producing results before the need to open formal investigations arises,” NHTSA told Consumer Reports.
In 2014, GM began a recall of some of its cars due to faulty ignition switches that could shut off the engine during driving. Ultimately, the company recalled nearly 30 million cars worldwide and paid compensation for 124 deaths.
In 2015, NHTSA officials outlined problems with FCA’s execution of 23 vehicle safety recalls covering more than 11 million defective vehicles. FCA later admitted to violating the Safety Act in three areas: effective and timely recall remedies, notification to vehicle owners and dealers, and notifications to NHTSA. FCA received a $70 million fine.
Consent orders between the automakers and NHTSA led to “heightened oversight” by the agency, which “has helped pave the way for better communications, reporting, and accountability from automakers,” the agency told Consumer Reports. “These teams are finding issues sooner.”
Although the number of investigations is at an all-time low, NHTSA has stressed that factoring in the number of lower-level probes (including “equipment queries” and “recall queries”) shows that investigative activity by the agency has actually risen 19 percent since 2016.
“My hope is that this is a new normal where companies recall defective products before NHTSA’s investigation is made official, but my fear is that DOT leadership took their foot off the gas on aggressive public investigations,” David Friedman, a director at Consumers Union and former deputy administrator at NHTSA, told Consumer Reports. “If that’s the case, we might not know it until defects ignored by an automaker become clear five or 10 years from now.”
Whether an accident is caused by faulty equipment or unsafe driving, if you are an accident victim, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact the experienced accident and personal injury attorneys at the Evans Law Firm for a free consultation.