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NHTSA – Undermanned and Outgunned

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Congress has tried bolstering the office responsible for monitoring safety defects in cars, despite the stagnate budget and cut staff dating back a decade.

Although cuts have not been connected to the failure to issue a recall sooner of 1.6 million General Motors Co., cars that were connected to 12 deaths, safety advocates contend U.S. investigators don’t have enough resources to keep up with data and detect patterns.

While the number of registered US cars climbed to 248 million, NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigations, decreased to 51 employees from 64 in 2002; with a budget of 10 million per year since 2005.

“The idea of $10 million for an office that’s in charge of the safety of all these vehicles, undertaking investigations and doing the recalls, is just ridiculous,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based group that works with the insurance industry.

A NHTSA spokesman defended the agency saying its investigations have led to 929 recalls involving 55 million vehicles over the last seven years. Vehicle-related deaths are historically low and automakers have paid out more than $85 million in fines since 2009 for delays in reporting defects.

Tread Act

Automobile-safety watchdogs say, in years past, the agency has started investigations with less evidence than that of the GM defect. In fact, an analysis of 39 similar probes shows that at least 26 of them were sparked with less than 10 consumer complaints.

Legislation in the Senate would require NHTSA to publish information it collects now and to do so in a searchable, user-friendly format which would pave the way for analysis of an automakers safety data by watchdog groups, competing automakers and lawyers for victims of accidents.

The TREAD Act contains provisions requiring vehicle and equipment manufacturers to report periodically to NHTSA on a wide variety of information that could indicate the existence of a potential safety defect and to advise NHTSA of foreign safety recalls and various other safety campaigns. You can read the TREAD Act in its entirety on the NHTSA Website.

House Hearing

NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman and GM CEO Mary Barra are scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 1.

The agency is under fire by the Transportation Department’s Inspector General over how it handled events in the decade leading up to Feb 7 when GM notified the agency that it was recalling some models of the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 because of reports that jostling key rings could cause engines to stall and air bags to not deploy.

40,000 Complaints

This review, by Inspector General Calvin Scovel, will be the fourth into the effectiveness of NHTSA’s defects-screening process since 2002. A report, in 2011, found the office failed to meet its own timeline goals in more than half the cases.

The NHTSA office is in charge of reviewing consumer complaints for the ever changing makes and models, which includes 15.4 million newly registered cars and trucks last year alone. The agency investigates more than 40,000 consumer complaints yearly and codes it by part, make and model number. It utilizes sophisticated data analysis tools, to find critical content and search for patterns, Naylor said.

New tools being worked on will aim to notify consumers about potential safety defects.

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