August 9, 2018, Trial News | The American Association For Justice

August 9, 2018, Trial News

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Report highlights NHTSA auto recall deficiencies

Kate Halloran

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s management of auto recalls is inadequate, according to an audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). In a report released on July 18, the OIG concluded that the agency’s current handling of recalls is insufficient to prevent injuries and fatalities on U.S. roads. The OIG highlighted deficiencies observed in recent recalls—specifically pointing to the Takata exploding air bag recall as an example of the process’s shortcomings—and made recommendations for improvements.

 

illustration of dashboard with an electronic highway view

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s management of auto recalls is inadequate, according to an audit conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). In a report released on July 18, the OIG concluded that the agency’s current handling of recalls is insufficient to prevent injuries and fatalities on U.S. roads. The OIG highlighted deficiencies observed in recent recalls—specifically pointing to the Takata exploding air bag recall as an example of the process’s shortcomings—and made recommendations for improvements.

As part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act passed in 2015, the OIG audited NHTSA’s recall process for light passenger vehicles, evaluating the agency’s monitoring of manufacturers’ response to recalls and its oversight of recall implementation. The audit focused on NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation and divisions within that office that oversee different elements of the recall process. The audit analyzed a random sample of 1,384 light passenger vehicle recalls that occurred between 2012 and 2016. During this time, more than 190 million vehicles had a recall—largely due to the millions of vehicles recalled with defective Takata air bags.

Auto manufacturers must notify NHTSA within five business days of discovering a defect or other issue of noncompliance with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard. They then have 60 days to inform NHTSA of a recall and to furnish proposed customer notifications for review. Once a recall has been initiated, the manufacturer must submit reports to the agency for 18 months about the number of vehicles that have been inspected and fixed under the recall.

The OIG report identified several areas where NHTSA’s oversight of the recall process falls short. It determined that the recall monitoring process “is too limited to ensure that remedies are reported completely and in a timely manner.” It noted that coordination with different groups of engineers for technical reviews was insufficient and not properly documented, and the office lacked “strong management controls” to ensure staff were monitoring recalls adequately. The report noted the defective Takata air bags—which have resulted in 15 deaths and more than 220 injuries in the United States so far—as an example of a poorly managed recall that may have delayed action after initial consumer complaints were received.

The report also found that the agency lacks a sufficient process for determining how well a recall has been executed. The agency has the authority to verify a manufacturer’s claimed completion rates but does not do so. Although NHTSA regulations also require manufacturers to submit additional information to help the agency evaluate the sufficiency of a recall, the OIG found that approximately 75 percent of manufacturer reports do not include this information.

The OIG noted further deficiencies in the Office of Defect Investigation’s handling of recalls, including failing to independently determine whether a manufacturer’s proposed recall remedies are adequate, not following up on missing documentation in manufacturer submissions to the agency, and not exercising enforcement options when documentation is missing or incomplete or when manufacturers are otherwise noncompliant. A 2016 internal review found that nearly 21 percent of recalls were missing documentation. NHTSA staff also identified 24 instances when concerns about the safety of a recall remedy were raised but none were investigated further. The OIG audit uncovered similar deficiencies in monitoring the recalls’ scope and manufacturer compliance with providing information on recall scope, in the handling of recalls involving equipment that may be present in non-recalled vehicles, and in using available tools to mitigate risk during a recall.

The OIG offered six recommendations to improve the recall process: create “a risk-based process to monitor manufacturers’ reporting of recall remedy, scope, and risk information”; create a risk-based process with time lines for staff to identify and respond to missing documentation; develop management controls and supervisory review; train staff on proper recall monitoring and oversight; update the portal that manufacturers used to submit recall information; and analyze lessons learned from the Takata recall to guide development of a plan to improve recall completion rates.