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Audit Sees a Lemon in Auto Safety Agency's Oversight

Transportation: NHTSA's system of detecting, correcting vehicle defects is flawed, study finds.


WASHINGTON — In one case, a child was ejected from a safety seat and killed, but there is no record that federal automobile defect investigators probed for a cause that might have led to a recall and saved other lives.

In another case, 153 consumers complained to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of "burning, smoking and melting" in the steering columns of two models of vehicles. A recall investigation was recommended but never started.

In a third example, 23 consumers complained of exhaust leaks in a particular 1993 model year minivan. The manufacturer had issued bulletins notifying dealers of the problem. But again, no federal investigation.

Now, a yearlong audit by the Transportation Department's inspector general, scheduled for release today, has concluded that the Ford-Firestone safety debacle of 2000 was not an isolated breakdown but a symptom of a flawed system for detecting and probing auto safety problems. It found that NHTSA has no consistent procedures for investigating potentially deadly defects and often relies on incomplete information to make decisions.

Report Warns of Reforms Deferred

The report, requested by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and obtained by The Times, also warned that several reforms mandated by Congress after the Firestone recall at NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation are at risk of not being carried out in a timely fashion.

NHTSA's "processes and procedures, as well as the data used for identifying potential defects and opening investigations, need major improvements," the report concludes.

In a formal response, NHTSA agreed to develop new investigative procedures. But the agency also defended itself, noting that its investigations account for well over half the vehicles recalled. "We do believe that very few, if any, significant safety defects have escaped detection, even given the relatively limited data that has been available to date," NHTSA officials wrote.

Unconvinced, the inspector general's office said in its written rebuttal: "We strongly disagree with this statement."

At the center of the controversy is a relatively obscure unit of the Transportation Department, assigned to monitor the vast automotive industry. The staff of NHTSA's defects office includes screeners who pore over consumer complaints looking for patterns and investigators who pursue potential problems identified by the screeners.

The inspector general found:

* NHTSA's database of consumer complaints--its main tool for spotting safety problems--is inadequate. The agency receives only about 10% of the volume of consumer complaints that manufacturers get. Many consumers are not aware that they can complain to the government, and auto makers are not required to forward their records.

Analyzing a random sample of 59 investigations opened in 1998, the inspector general found that NHTSA received 483 complaints, while auto makers had received 5,235. In one case, a company received 1,411 complaints of transmission failures that could cause fires, while NHTSA got only 32. None of the manufacturers was identified in the report.

* Congressionally mandated regulations requiring manufacturers to turn over records and provide "early warning" of potential safety problems risk being delayed. Because of the complexity of the legal issues and auto maker opposition to certain disclosures, a June 30 target date set by Congress may not be met.

In any event, the inspector general recommended that the agency seek information from other sources as well, such as plaintiffs' lawyers. The report also warned that a new defect information database NHTSA is building could be subject to cost overruns and delays.

* NHTSA's criteria for opening an investigation are unclear. While the Consumer Product Safety Commission has firm rules for investigating fatalities blamed on the products it regulates, NHTSA does not look into every death that may be linked to a safety defect.

The inspector general found a complaint alleging that an occupant had been killed in a 1995 luxury vehicle because the air bag did not deploy. However, there was no record of any follow-up by NHTSA. In other cases, defect investigators rejected internal recommendations to look into possible problems but failed to document their reasoning. The inspector general recommended that the agency study and adopt some of the procedures of the product safety commission.

* There is no system for reconsidering a decision not to investigate. In the case of the 1993 minivan model with a record of exhaust leaks, the inspector general found that a year after it decided not to investigate 23 complaints, NHTSA had received 30 additional cases. "We question why an investigation was not opened," the report says.

Over the years, NHTSA has been criticized for responding slowly to emerging safety issues, such as the Firestone tire failures on Ford Explorers and the threat that air bags posed to children and small women in the front seat.

Marked Decline in Air Bag Deaths

NHTSA formally initiated the Firestone investigation in May 2000, only after a Texas television station's reports prompted an increase in consumer complaints. Previously, it had ignored early warnings from State Farm Insurance of problems with the tires. NHTSA opened its investigation with 90 complaints, including 33 accidents and four deaths. But the inspector general found that Firestone already had 2,288 property damage claims, 193 personal injury claims and was a defendant in 66 lawsuits.

Once mobilized, however, NHTSA has been able to address the safety problems. Air bag deaths have declined markedly, and millions of tires have been recalled. The inspector general's report cautions that an array of new powers the agency was granted after the Firestone case will not automatically benefit consumers unless Congress continues to closely monitor NHTSA's progress in fulfilling its commitments.

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