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Watchdog finds flaws in federal auto oversight

Watchdog finds flaws in federal auto oversight
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A watchdog for the Department of Transportation is questioning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's ability to properly regulate the nation's auto industry after its handling of a widespread string of recalls. 

The transportation's department's Inspector General said in a report that was released on June 18 that the highway safety agency has weaknesses that were identified in a review of the federal government's handling of recalls at General Motors and Takata that are hampering the federal government's ability to spot problems at auto companies.   

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"NHTSA’s ODI [Office of Defects Investigation] is charged with requiring manufacturers to recall vehicles with safety-related defects," the report says. "However, weaknesses in ODI’s training and supervision of pre-investigation staff and its processes for identifying potential safety concerns and initiating investigations, as evidenced by NHTSA’s handling of the GM ignition switch defect, deter NHTSA from successfully meeting its mandate to help prevent crashes and their attendant costs, both human and financial." 

Highway safety regulators in the Obama administration have come under fire for their oversight efforts after widespread recalls at General Motors and Takata in 2014 that involved parts that were first found to be defective years ago. 

Lawmakers first took the highway safety agency to task last spring for its handling of recalls at General Motors that affected about two million vehicles. NHTSA officials were accused of failing to notice the trend of accidents involving GM's faulty ignition switch for several years before the recall was issued in February.  

The agency has faced criticism again this year as a recall involving faulty airbags that were manufactured by Japanese automaker Takata that started out affecting about eight million cars was expanded to include 34 million automobiles

The transportation department's Inspector General issued a set of 17 recommendations in its report on the highway safety's agency's handling of the high-profile recalls in recent months. 

The recommendations include developing and implementing "a method for assessing and improving the quality of early warning reporting data" and issuing "guidance or best practices on the format and information that should be included in non-dealer field reports to improve consistency and usefulness." 

Other recommendations from the report include requiring automakers "to develop and adhere to procedures for complying with early warning reporting requirements; and [requiring] ODI to review these procedures periodically." 

The watchdog agency said the highway safety administration should "expand [its] current data verification processes to assess manufacturers’ compliance with regulations to submit complete and accurate early warning reporting data. 

"At minimum, this process should assess how manufacturers assign vehicle codes to specific incidents and how they determine which incidents are reportable," the report said. 

Lawmakers said Monday that the report showed there are serious problems with the Obama administration's handling of auto regulation. 

"The inspector general’s report raises serious concerns, including NHTSA’s inability to conduct accurate analysis, as well as its failure to provide necessary training and supervision to its staff," Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP coronavirus bill blocked as deal remains elusive Clyburn predicts action on coronavirus relief after elections GOP to Trump: Focus on policy MORE (R-S.D.), who is chairman of the Senate Commmerce, Science and Transportation committee, said in a statement. 

“NHTSA’s mismanagement of resources means key safety defects may not even be targeted for investigation," Thune continued. "This new audit is littered with instances in which NHTSA repeatedly dropped the ball when it had chances to identify the existence and causes of significant vehicle safety defects." 

Thune promised to hold officials from the highway safety administration accountable for the finding of the report during a hearing on auto oversight that has been scheduled for Tuesday. 

"These issues cannot be solved just by throwing money at the department," he said. "NHTSA owes the public an explanation, and I look forward to Administrator Rosekind’s testimony before the Committee next week on his plans for accountability and implementing the inspector general’s recommendations.”

Democrats focused on a separate report that warning emails about airbag problems from employees at Takata were ignored by the company before the widespread recall was announced. 

Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonSenate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Democrats sound alarm on possible election chaos Trump, facing trouble in Florida, goes all in MORE (D-Fla.), who is the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, said there are 13,000 documents that have been compiled for the hearing on Tuesday about the Takata recall that reveal the warnings were disregarded.  

"The more evidence we see, the more it paints a troubling picture of a manufacturer that lacked concern,” he said.

The full report can be read here