Recent high profile stories about GM and Toyota reveal the flaws of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – National Consumers League

In the shadow of the General Motors and Toyota stories about widespread safety issues that went largely ignored, is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s lax performance. This agency is the consumer’s guardian to ensure that industry designs and manufactures cars and trucks safely. The federal agency failed at this assignment. As a New York Times editorial noted, recent events “show[s] glaring deficiencies in enforcement of auto safety regulations.”

Consumers reported from 2009-2010 sudden acceleration problems with their cars.   When Toyota denied it had problems with the phenomenon of sudden unexpected acceleration (SUA), NHTSA agreed, issuing a report in 2011 essentially denying consumers’ experience with this very dangerous defect: it sends a car hurtling down the road, unable to stop. An off duty policeman and three members of his family were killed when his brakes failed to override the throttle mechanism. NHTSA’s report claimed “driver error”.  The agency was wrong, and a recent $1.2 billion settlement reached between Toyota and the Department of Justice shows: Toyota admitted it failed to report defects and worse, denied there was ever a problem.

General Motors recalled 1.6 million cars after admitting it had failed to report faulty ignition switches it knew were defective.  But NHTSA had reports from consumers for years that it failed to act on. The ignition key would slip out of place and freeze up the steering wheel. A dozen innocent people were killed in accidents related to this defect.

The New York Times notes that NHTSA’s $10 million budget for investigations has barely increased over the past decade and the agency lacks criminal power to levy criminal sanctions. There are many good people who work at NHTSA that are dedicated to protecting consumers and improving car safety, but that’s no excuse for NHTSA’s lapses.

I spent a decade working on auto safety for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. We couldn’t get NHTSA to act on some glaring safety problems – like SUVs and pickup trucks rolling over at much higher numbers than cars. We had to go to Congress – Senator Ed Markey led the charge when he was in the House of Representatives, getting legislation passed mandating that NHTSA develop a test for vehicle stability.

I’m sorry to say the GM and Toyota examples tell me that not much has changed. Federal safety agencies should never forget they hold the lives of consumers in their hands The agency needs to be far more responsive to reports from consumers of vehicle defects. Consumers’ lives depend on it. If that takes a changes of leadership and culture, so be it.

“There is no question that in these cases, the automakers failed the public,” the Times rightly concluded, “federal regulators – and the Congress that has denied them the weapons they need – are complicit in that failure.”