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The NHTSA Is in Hot Water for . . . Not Being Safe Enough?

When it comes to car safety, two well-known organizations come to mind: the NHTSA and the IIHS. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is tasked with crash-testing vehicles and enforcing traffic and car safety regulations. However, a story on Car Complaints suggests that the organization may not be doing its job correctly.

Despite all the advancements in vehicle safety technology, even the car with the most driver’s aids can be involved in accidents. Early estimates show that over 36,000 people lost their lives in car crashes last year. It’s the NHTSA’s job to prevent these tragic fatalities whenever possible, which is why this safety audit is serious news.

Why the NHTSA is in trouble

The Office of Inspector General from the U.S. Department of Transportation intends to do a thorough review of the NHTSA’s safety protocols. The inspector general’s office has concluded that 36,000 deaths in one year due to automobile accidents is an unacceptable figure. There is concern that the NHTSA isn’t doing enough to help the general public.

The NHTSA issued its own response, saying that it was fully willing to cooperate with the Office of Inspector General. Inspectors plan to make sure that the NHTSA is testing all the latest safety equipment on new cars.

While the NHTSA did say it would comply with investigators, it also argued that statistics suggest another story. According to its estimates, vehicle fatalities are down by 1.2 percent compared to last year. The organization also contributed over $500 million toward the development of highway safety programs.

However, considering all the latest safety equipment that new cars possess, many believe that something is amiss. After examining the death toll, a former deputy administrator from the NHTSA states that the organization isn’t working hard enough. According to this former administrator, the fatalities for last year could have decreased by half with better safety measures.

Is the NHTSA doing all it can?

Any life saved is an improvement, but the numbers indicate that the NHTSA needs to improve at a faster pace. Speed has always been a problem for the organization. It can take years for the NHTSA to finalize new car safety regulations, a practice that has been heavily criticized. 

For example, the NHTSA finalized a new requirement for EVs and other quiet cars in early 2018. These quiet cars are now required to make an audible alert to warn pedestrians that it is approaching them. However, Congress requested the NHTSA to make this feature a requirement back in 2010.

The NHTSA’s past failures

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To its credit, the NHTSA has owned up to some of its previous faults. In 2015, the organization admitted that it was at least partially responsible for a massive ignition switch failure. One year earlier, nearly 1 million GM cars were recalled due to faulty ignition switches, which stopped airbags from deploying.

The NHTSA cited that it was at fault for believing GM’s word that there was nothing wrong with the switches. When asked why the affected vehicles weren’t tested, the NHTSA said it was too understaffed at the time. However, some speculate that this was just an excuse.

The NHTSA’s track record with following safety recommendations also isn’t the best. During the height of the Takata airbag catastrophe, the organization was audited by the OIG for not recalling cars quickly enough. The NHTSA also failed to keep track of how many cars had actually been fixed.

The OIG also reported that the NHTSA failed to respond to 90 percent of consumer complaints submitted in 2015, according to Car Complaints. The organization didn’t let customers provide adequate information to inspect a vehicle, nor did it hold the automakers responsible. Judging by these accounts, it’s clear that that this safety organization has some work to do.