Federal auto safety regulators routinely fail to address consumer safety concerns in a timely manner, an Associated Press (AP) analysis found, underscoring a problem that may contribute to dangerous vehicles remaining on the road and more people being injured and killed needlessly.
The AP reported that since 2010 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) received 15 petitions filed by consumers and safety advocates who wanted the federal regulators to investigate potential safety problems in some vehicles. Of those petitions, NHTSA missed the four-month deadline that the law requires it to meet in granting or denying the request 12 times.
Car owners concerned about a safety defect in their vehicles can file a complaint with NHTSA. These complaints, typically filed online, report single incidents and go into the agency’s databank. Consumers can also file petitions, which are formal requests for a NHTSA probe. Because petitions must include evidence of a defect in several vehicles, they are usually filed by a consumer advocacy group.
But even though a 1974 law intended to speed things up at NHTSA requires the agency to respond to petitions within four months, the agency seldom does. According to the AP, NHTSA took more than a year to start an investigation or close a case in eight of the petitions it reviewed, and one petition filed in 2012 remains unanswered.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that even after NHTSA launches an investigation, it can take several months, even years, to launch a recall.
As the AP report notes, thousands of consumer complaints about defective ignition switches in GM vehicles have been piling up in the NHTSA database for more than a decade, yet the agency took no authoritative action to enforce a recall or even investigate, nor did GM start recalling its vehicles for deadly ignition switch problems until February 2014.
Meanwhile, GM’s defective ignition switches caused dozens of crashes, killing at least 13 people and injuring hundreds more.
Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook told the AP that while some more complex petitions may take longer than 4 months for the agency to decide, missed deadlines on other petitions should result in funding being taken from the agency or the administrator’s salary.
Some lawmakers, however, argue that the NHTSA is too small and underfunded already to effectively regulate some 238 million vehicles on U.S. roads today.