It's a safe bet that the people working at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are not going to remember 2014 fondly. The government organization with the task of keeping drivers safe allegedly missed or ignored evidence about General Motors' ignition switch problem for years before embarking on a massive safety campaign. The agency has started trying to put itself on a better path with independent oversight, but a new report from the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General has shown just how bad things were.

The investigation lays out a host of problems within NHTSA, especially at the Office of Defect Investigation, which actually researches recalls. "ODI's processes for collecting vehicle safety data are insufficient to ensure complete and accurate data," according to a portion of the summary. Among the issues, the office didn't have a statistical model in place when analyzing potential safety concerns. "Consequently, ODI cannot differentiate trends and outliers that represent random variation from those that are statistically significant."

Other problems came down to a lack of staff. Just one employee was responsible for looking at 330 defect reports each day, which were then sent to eight advanced screeners. According to this report, that person had just seconds to make a decision on each claim because there were other work responsibilities to be done later in the day. Furthermore, "ODI's pre-investigative staff told us they have received little or no training in their areas of concentration, some of which are technologically complex."

One situation jumps out as so dire as to be terrifying. According to the report, from Q2 2012 to Q4 2013, the ODI received 13 reports of airbags not deploying in 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalts, but the office only looked at one of them. The reason: "they did not review the majority of these reports because in the second quarter of 2012, GM began using a new file format for most of their document submissions (.docx), which could not be read by the statistical test ODI uses to analyze these reports."

These are just a handful of the problems this report outlines within ODI. "Collectively, these weaknesses have resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked," it concludes. You can download the entire document, here.

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Inadequate Data and Analysis Undermine NHTSA's Efforts To Identify and Investigate Vehicle Safety Concerns

Requested by the Secretary of Transportation
Project ID:
ST-2015-063

View PDF Document

Summary

Since February 2014, the General Motors Corporation (GM) has recalled 8.7 million vehicles in the United States due to an ignition switch defect that can unexpectedly shut down the engine and disable power steering, power brakes, and air bags. The defective ignition switches have been linked to more than 110 fatalities and 220 injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) identified the GM air bag non-deployments as a potential safety issue but ultimately decided not to investigate the problem. The Secretary requested that we assess NHTSA's vehicle safety procedures and determine whether NHTSA had information on GM's ignition switch issues.

ODI's processes for collecting vehicle safety data are insufficient to ensure complete and accurate data. Deficiencies in ODI's vehicle safety data are due in part to the Agency's lack of detailed guidance on what information manufacturers and consumers should report—resulting in inconsistent data that ODI investigative chiefs consider to be of little use. Weaknesses in ODI's processes for analyzing vehicle safety data further undermine ODI's efforts to identify safety defects. Specifically, ODI does not follow standard statistical practices when analyzing early warning reporting data, and ODI does not thoroughly screen consumer complaints or adequately train or supervise its staff. Collectively, these weaknesses have resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked. Finally, ODI's process for determining when to investigate potential safety defects is insufficient to prompt needed recalls and other corrective actions. While ODI has identified factors for deciding whether an investigation is warranted, it has not developed sufficient guidance or reached consensus on how these factors should be applied. ODI's investigation decisions also lack transparency and accountability.

NHTSA concurred with all 17 of our recommendations to improve ODI's processes for collecting and analyzing vehicle safety data and for determining which potential safety issues warrant investigation.


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