WASHINGTON — The U.S. auto safety regulator routinely fails to meet its internal timelines for completing auto safety defect investigations, a government report released on Thursday found, hindering its ability to quickly respond to severe safety risks.
The Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General said that 26 of 27 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigations in its 2018 to 2019 sample did not meet the agency’s timeliness targets, and faulted other aspects of its review of safety defects.
The report found NHTSA’s efforts, including its leadership holding regular investigation reviews and trying to tighten timelines, had not resulted in timely defect investigations.
The lack of timeliness in completing investigations limits NHTSA’s ability to respond to rapidly evolving or severe risks to vehicle safety as well as the agency’s public accountability, the report added.
NHTSA defect investigations are required before the agency can seek to compel an automaker to conduct a recall of vehicles that pose serious safety risks.
NHTSA has a 120-day target for completing preliminary evaluations and a one-year target to complete engineering analyses.
The report, in its sample of some 2018 and 2019 NHTSA investigations, found preliminary evaluations spent 617 days open on average while engineering analyses were on average open for 1,001 days.
Deputy NHTSA Administrator Sophie Shulman said in response to the report that simply because the agency exceeded internal timelines that did not demonstrate that its safety interventions were insufficient.
“We do not wait until an investigation is closed to hold a manufacturer accountable for fixing a safety defect,” she said.
The report said NHTSA Office of Defect Investigation (ODI) staff complained about limited resources, being overwhelmed by an unprecedented increase in correspondence, management’s decision making, approval processes, documentation reviews and the agency’s interaction with manufacturers.
NHTSA wants 26 additional ODI employees to identify and investigate potential safety defects and manage recalls, the report said.
The report also faulted NHTSA’s reliance upon aging, decentralized databases and said a lack of consistent compliance with its issue escalation processes increased the potential for delays in investigating and mitigating important safety issues.
NHTSA said in response it had already taken actions that fully implement half of the report’s recommendations.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday withdrew the nomination of the acting head of NHTSA to take the top job on a permanent basis. For much of the last six years, NHTSA has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator.