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Highway Safety Board Found to Be Slow, Timid

Tim Roberts Photography/Shutterstock.com

The government’s top auto-safety regulator found itself in the bull’s eye of a lengthy New York Times investigative piece published Sunday night. 

Three Times reporters’ analysis of thousands of consumer complaints and a review of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s popular safety rating system found the agency “has a record of missteps that goes well beyond its failure to detect an ignition switch defect in several models of G.M. cars now linked to at least 13 deaths.”

Over the past decade, the Times wrote, NHTSA “frequently has been slow to identify problems, tentative to act and reluctant to employ its full legal powers against companies.”

As major players such as Toyota, Honda and Jeep have struggled with fuel tank fires or air bag ruptures, the agency “did not take a leading role until well after the problems had reached a crisis level, safety advocates had sounded alarms and motorists were injured or died,” the Times wrote.

Agency officials declined to speak directly to the reporters, but answered questions in writing with variations of the following: “NHTSA has a proven record of aggressively investigating and pursuing recalls,” the agency wrote. “NHTSA evaluates each potential safety defect issue based on the particular circumstances involved and does not have a set threshold for opening defect investigations beyond our core mission of reducing fatalities and injuries from motor vehicle crashes.”

The feature charges the agency with paying more attention to its popular safety ratings system than to investigating dangers to consumers.

Former staff members are quoted as saying the agency is underfunded, not cohesive and overly secret. “It’s always been organized as a silo, without the normal checks and balances that exist in the regulatory process,” said Bill Walsh, a senior associate NHTSA administrator until 2004 who helped implement the agency’s current complaints system.

The agency has also not made full use of its legal powers in investigating automakers, the Times said. Acting NHTSA Head David Friedman recently told Congress he did not realize his team had authority to issue subpoenas.

(Image via Tim Roberts Photography/Shutterstock.com)

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books, and organizational media strategies.

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