Watchdog: Vehicle safety inspectors are overworked, underprepared

AUTOWASHINGTON ? The overworked inspectors responsible for identifying
safety shortcomings in cars failed to note problems with ignition
switches in GM cars and lack the resources and protocols to pinpoint
future safety problems, according to a new report and congressional
testimony Tuesday by the Department of Transportation?s top watchdog.

The
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration?s Office of Defects
Investigation missed opportunities to investigate problems in GM cars
with airbags and ignition switches, which have been linked to over 100
deaths, Inspector General Calvin Scovel told a Senate hearing. The
accompanying report was commissioned in response to GM?s recall of 8.7
million vehicles for faulty ignition switches in order to assess whether
the NHTSA should have identified problems earlier.

Senators immediately criticized the agency.

?This
audit report is one of the worst I?ve ever seen in terms of a
government agency,? said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. ?This is about
blatant, incompetent mismanagement.?

Failure to properly collect,
interpret, and investigate data ?resulted in significant safety
concerns being overlooked,? Scovel said.

The investigative office
fails to verify information provided by car manufactures, despite
knowing that reports sometimes mischaracterize and downplay incidents ?
for example, avoiding use of the word ?fire,? in accident reports ?
according to the report.

Auditors were told the office relies on the honor system.

?The
honor system just doesn?t work,? Center for Auto Safety Executive
Director Clarence Ditlow said in an interview, arguing that car
companies have an incentive to downplay potential problems: ?A recall is
something that affects the bottom line.?

GM?s characterization of some issues may have ?masked potential trends? about safety problems, according to the report.

Even
when inspectors do identify questionable reports, investigations can
take years. Despite learning in 2004 that an unnamed major recreational
vehicle manufacturer had failed to report death and injury data, the
defects investigation office waited almost a decade to take action,
Scovel told senators.

Staff members responsible for reviewing
consumer reports of accidents, meanwhile, are overburdened and
undertrained, Scovel said. A single staff member is responsible for
reviewing an average of 330 incoming complaints per day and deciding
which to investigate further, and staff responsible for spotting trends
in complaints have no training in statistics, his investigation found.
One person assigned to review cases related to airbags had no training
in airbags and no engineering background.

According to the
report, the office investigates only about 10 percent of consumer
complaints about safety, using an inconsistent process for deciding
which merited more research. For the years where data were available,
only 3 percent of the complaints related to recalled vehicles were
investigated. One staff member told investigators he relies on his ?gut
feeling? when determining which investigations to pursue.

In his
testimony, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said the administration
would work to implement the report?s recommendations within one year,
but also argued he needs a bigger budget to fund improvements in
investigations. Rosekind, who has been on the job less than a year,
testified that the budget is 23 percent lower than it was 10 years ago
when adjusted for inflation.

?Gaps in our available personnel, technology, and authority are a known risk,? Rosekind said.

McCaskill, though, said she thought resources alone would be insufficient to address the issues.

?I?m
not about to give you more money until I see meaningful progress on
reforming the internal processes in this organization,? she said.

Advocates
for reform, meanwhile, say they worry that the next major safety issue
could go undetected for long stretches again unless significant changes
are made.

?Unless that agency is substantially upgraded you?re going to continue to see defects,? said Ditlow.

Distributed by MCT DIRECT