by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
The Senate committee that oversees transportation issues grilled auto regulators from the Obama administration on Tuesday over their handling of a recall of defective airbags that has affected 34 million cars.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) that a report from the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General that revealed the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency (NHTSA) has trouble spotting problems at car companies before they become big enough to require recalls is deeply problematic.
“This audit report is one of the worst I’ve ever seen in terms of a government agency,” she said to NHSTA Administrator Mark Rosekind and DOT Inspector Calvin Scovell III.
“And the reason it’s so bad, I agree, Mr. Scovel, this isn’t about resources,” McCaskill continued. “This is about blatant incompetent mismanagement, Mr. Rosekind.”
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 inspector general’s report that McCaskill was citing included 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.”
McCaskill said Tuesday that it is particularly troubling that the inspector general found problems with there is inconstistency at the highway safety administration about when investigations of auto companies should begin.
“Now if NHTSA isn’t clear about when an investigation is to be opened, we might as well shut it down,” she said.
“I’m not about to give you more money until I see meaningful progress on reforming the internal processes within this agency,” McCaskill added at another point during Tuesday’s hearing.
Rosekind, who took over the highway safety agency earlier this year, told the panel that he agrees with the suggestions from Scovell.
“We concurred with all 17 of the recommendations,” said. “They validate and are consistent with our two reports as well.”
Rosekind said the highway safety administration already has 44 actions underway to improve its oversight of the nation’s auto industry, including 10 that directly address problems that were raised by the inspector general’s report.
“I’m just highlighting, there were 17 in their report, our total actions already are up at 44,” he said. “We will continue to look for every place possible that we can make changes.”
Republicans on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation said they are also troubled by the Obama administration’s handling of the widespread auto recalls in recent years.
“The inspector general’s report reaches some serious conclusions regarding NHTSA’s ability to detect vehicle defects, highlighting things like failure to review information provided by both industry and consumers, botched data analysis, inadequate training and supervision as major problems for the agency,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is the panel’s chairman.
“While we have to ensure that automakers properly report safety violations, it doesn’t help if NHTSA’s staff are not even reviewing the information, or if when they do they aren’t employing proper statistical analyses to detect defects,” he continued. “NHTSA isn’t following basic best practices. And these are process issues that can’t be solved just by throwing additional resources at the problem.”