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Audit finds National Highway Traffic Safety Administration auto safety defect probes take too long

The U.S. government agency charged with keeping the roads safe is slow to investigate automobile safety defects, limiting its ability to handle rapidly changing or severe risks, an audit made public Thursday found.

Problems at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Office of Defects Investigation limit the agency's ability to respond to rapidly evolving problems or severe risks to auto safety, the audit by the Department of Transportation Inspector General found.

The agency also doesn't have an integrated computer system for its probes, and doesn't consistently follow its own procedures for making safety problems a high priority, the audit found.

The office has made progress in restructuring and modernizing its data and analysis systems, auditors determined, but weaknesses in meeting its own goals for timely investigations increase possible delays in probing important safety issues.

The office also doesn't always record key documentation in its investigative files. In 22 of 24 investigations in 2018 and 2019, files were missing documentation.

Also, in all eight investigations sampled by auditors in 2021, ODI didn't follow procedures needed to evaluate the risk from potential auto defects. The office doesn't have clear requirements for documenting investigations, and it doesn't provide adequate supervision over investigators, the report said.

"As a result, ODI may miss critical information for launching an investigation, lack information on what was said at meetings with manufacturers or stakeholders, delay remedies for safety defects or not accurately inform the public and stakeholders about an investigation's status," the inspector general found.

In a statement Thursday night, NHTSA said it already has finished most of the improvements recommended by the inspector general.

The agency set timeliness targets for its investigations, but the audit found that in 33 of 35 probes sampled by the inspector general over three years, it missed them.

"ODI does not consistently document information used for investigating and identifying potential defects and unsafe motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment in the agency's internal and external files," the audit said.

The audit comes as NHTSA is trying to force a Tennessee air bag inflator company to recall 67 million inflators that could explode and hurl shrapnel at drivers and passengers. The agency sent a recall request letter to ARC Automotive Inc. in April, but the company refused the recall in May.

At least two people in the U.S. and Canada have died after the inflators ruptured, and seven more have been hurt.

The Office of Defects Investigation began investigating ARC's inflators in 2015, but it took nearly eight years for the agency to seek the recall. In 2021, a 40-year-old mother of 10 was killed in Michigan's Upper Peninsula after an ARC inflator exploded in a relatively minor crash.

NHTSA made a tentative determination that ARC's inflators are defective, and it has ordered the company to say whether it expects more inflators to rupture. ARC has until June 14 to respond. The next step in the process would be for NHTSA to hold a public hearing, and then possibly take the company to court to get a recall order.

ARC maintains that no safety defect exists and that NHTSA's demand is based on a hypothesis rather than technical conclusions.

The defects office sets a goal of finishing preliminary investigations in 120 days. When it upgrades those to an engineering analysis, the goal is to finish in a year. But auditors found that preliminary probes in a 2018 and 2019 sample took an average of 617 days to finish. The engineering analyses were open for another 1,001 days on average, almost three times the goal.

ODI uses multiple decentralized data-management systems to store information from complex investigations, the audit said, but it hasn't integrated the systems due to contractor and staffing issues and a budget shortfall.

The inspector general issued a dozen recommendations including that NHTSA develop a plan to meet goals for faster investigations, or revise the goals if they're not realistic. The agency also should do timely reviews of data provided by automakers, and develop a written plan for all phases of investigations. It also should quickly integrate its systems to better manage data.

NHTSA's statement said it finished the first phase of a multiyear information technology update by 2020, improving data storage and analysis. Since then, it's continually introduced technology updates.

"NHTSA believes it is well positioned to build upon its successful implementation of standardized operating procedures, including rigorous documentation and risk-based escalation processes," the statement said.

The agency said improvements have positioned it to oversee a growing number of recalls that are addressing safety risks faster than in the past. It said there were a record 896 vehicle and equipment recalls in 2021, and 850 in 2022. "NHTSA is continuing its efforts to further enhance its ability to identify safety issues more quickly while engaging manufacturers earlier in the process to conduct more timely recalls," the statement said.

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