Congress told DOT’s vehicle safety oversight needs work

Updated Aug 5, 2015

A Senate committee heard testimony earlier this year that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s vehicle safety oversight is undermined by inadequate data and analysis.

Calvin L. Scovel III, the transportation department’s Inspector General, testified about the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation before the Senate transportation committee June 23. Although his review focused on ODI’s treatment of passenger vehicles, the ODI is also charged with the duty of identifying safety defects in commercial trucks and motor vehicle equipment.

The office requires manufacturers to recall vehicles and equipment with these defects, but lacks the procedures needed to collect complete and accurate vehicle safety data, Scovel told the committee.

Last year, he had testified before the committee that General Motors’ delayed recalling a faulty ignition switch, despite the ODI having received early warning and consumer complaints about it. With that defect inked to more than 120 fatalities and 250 injuries, DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx asked him to examine the office’s defect investigation processes and make recommendations.

Manufacturers have broad discretion in reporting early warning data and the office does not adequately verify the data manufacturers submit. Its main source of identifying safety issues is consumer complaint, but these lack the information to correctly identify the systems involved.

ODI does not screen consumer complaints well or adequately train or supervise its staff in screening complaints, resulting in significant safety concerns being overlooked, he said.

When it analyzes early warning reporting data, ODI does not adhere to standard statistical practices. The result is it cannot differentiate outliers and trends that represent random variation from those that are statistically significant.

ODI’s process for determining to investigate potential safety defects also undermines identifying needed recalls and other corrective actions. It emphasizes investigating issues tmost likely to result in recalls. This has led to considerable investigative duties being done during the pre-investigative phase, often by those not trained in this area.

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Finally, the office does not always document justifications for decisions not to investigate and does not consistently make timely decisions on opening investigations, Scovel said.