A story by The New York Times appears to portray the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as an agency that has turned into little more than a marketing arm of the major car companies.
They note that the agency’s “five-star rating” system has obtained a larger share of the agency’s budget than the investigation unit, and as more cars receive the five-star rating, this year will set a record for vehicle recalls, none of which has been ordered by the agency.
Even more ironic, some of the problems that led to these eventual recalls appear to have identified as significant safety issues in consumer complaints based on ordinary people reviewing information from NHTSA’s own databases, which NHTSA researchers apparently failed to discover.
Of course, this is not an accident. The agency has both been underfunded over the decades and, in essence, muzzled. In repeated situations necessitating eventual recalls, the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire rollover, the Toyota unintended acceleration cases, the Honda/Takata airbag and the GM ignition switch, the agency failed both in its surveillance of the car industry, and provided a muted response, waiting for years for the manufacturers to recall the vehicles.
The Times explains that the Honda/Takata airbag problem was discernible as early as 2000, but it was eight years before a recall finally occurred, and it involved 4,205 cars. As with too many of these cases, it was a fatal car accident involving the airbag in a Honda Accord, which exploded and killed a teenager with shrapnel that finally impelled a half-a-million car recall.
The recall prompted the agency to investigate why Honda and Takata had been so slow and tentative in beginning the recall process, but the agency inexplicably shut down the investigation in six months, before Takata had even been able to respond to document requests.
The problem had not been rectified, and within a year, more ruptures with the Takata airbags led to yet another recall by Honda and other carmakers, involving more than 14 million cars. The Times reports that the agency has started a second investigation into this matter. Perhaps this one will result in a report.
The New York Times, “Regulator Slow to Respond to Deadly Vehicle Defects,” Hilary Stout, Danielle Ivory and Rebecca R. Ruiz, September 14, 2014