This year, car manufacturers including General Motors, Toyota and Honda, have been forced to recall over fifty million cars, the largest number since the enactment of the National Motor Vehicle & Safety Act in 1966.  Toyota’s unintended acceleration defect has been linked to at least 56 deaths.  General Motors’ ignition shut-off malfunction in the Cobalt and other models has caused at least 29 deaths to date. The final sad total will be much higher.

Honda and other manufacturers using air bags made by the supplier Takata have recalled over 8 million cars so far. The air bags have been linked to at least three gruesome deaths caused by flying metal shards that slashed drivers and passengers when the devices exploded. 


Who is responsible for this deadly safety epidemic?

In some cases the car manufacturers waited years to file the required “death reports” with the federal safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  The agency has the power to require immediate and full reports on all defective vehicles and to fine the manufacturers for non-compliance. Yet, in recent years, it has repeatedly delayed taking any action and has often settled for incomplete or limited regional recalls.  Nothing in the law passed by Congress 48 years ago authorizes such compromise of the public safety.

Congressional hearings have been held by the relevant committees: the House Energy & Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee.  Senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal have introduced remedial legislation that would furnish NHTSAwith additional power to compel and publicize full defect reporting by car companies and also remove the current $35 million cap on fines for not reporting, or false reports. So far, however, nothing has actually happened to change anything.

Almost all knowledgeable observers, including Congress, consumer groups and the press, seem to agree that much of the blame rests with the car manufacturers.  After all, they have the legal duty to promptly report to NHTSA any “safety related” defect, as well as any information regarding an alleged death or serious injury involving a defect.  Obviously, recent events suggest it may be in a company’s economic interest to report as little as possible and as slowly as possible.  By doing so, the manufacturer, or supplier can limit the cost and scope of any recall they may ultimately pay for.  Earlier this year, Toyota was fined $1.2 billion for lying to NHTSA in its delayed reporting of unintended acceleration crashes of its Camry’s and other models. The government, in a rare application of the criminal Wire Fraud Act by the Justice Department, imposed the record fine.  As for GM, it has apologized profusely to the public and fired 15 lower level employees, who it says were responsible for the failure to report the ignition shut off defect.

NHTSA, which supposed to be the federal safety watchdog, has come in for a large share of the blame.  A House Energy & Commerce report released by Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) accused the agency of shared culpability for its failure to promptly investigate and force GM to recall the models with dangerous ignition defects. 

But is that the whole answer?  Not really.  Sens. Edward MarkeyEd MarkeyCivilian Climate Corps can help stem rural-urban divide Senate votes to nix Trump rule limiting methane regulation Senate Democrats push Biden over raising refugee cap MORE (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) bills would probably improve the reporting practices of car manufacturers. The legislation, if it could get past the House, might even limit the often cozy relationship of the federal safety agency with manufacturers, a relationship demonstrated by the delays and by the legally questionable regional recalls. 

Yet there is another co-conspirator that also has “shared culpability” for the General Motors, Toyota, Honda and other botched recalls, such as Chrysler Jeep’s  potentially flammable gas tanks. 

That party is the finger- wagging Congress itself, specifically, the House and Senate Appropriations committees.  They have starved the federal safety agency for staff and funding for decades. NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigations (ODI), the office responsible for policing and correcting safety defects, is funded at about $10 million a year to oversee the 265 million cars now on the roads in America.  It has about 60 professionals, including engineers and investigators, assigned to the job. Its staff and expertise are simply no match for the skills and size of the car companies and particularly the complex, computerized cars with new technologies now coming off the assembly lines.  And NHTSA’s $10 million congressionally-authored budget for the defects office has remained virtually the same for a decade.

The underfunding by Congress insures that the safety agency will be slow, incompetent and subject to halfway deals with the car companies in order to attempt to comply with its huge responsibilities. NHTSA’s failures cannot be simply be an omission by the sequester-prone congressional leadership and its heavily lobbied appropriations committees. NHTSA has become a safety watchdog designed to fail.  

So before Congress adopts too much of a holier than thou attitude with regard to the car manufacturers and its own safety delegate, NHTSA, it should take a hard look at its own responsibility for the recent increase in dangerous cars and in the deaths and injuries they have caused and will cause.  Congress needs to hold itself responsible as a primary cause of the recent failure to ensure the safety of American drivers and passengers. 

Lemov is the author of the forthcoming book, “Car Safety Wars:  100 Years of Technology, Politics and Sudden Death” (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/Rowman& Littlefield) He was formerly chief counsel of the House Energy and Commerce, Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.