Legislation aimed at reducing defective airbag deaths failing

The federal government is investigating whether Honda failed to report deaths and injuries caused by defective airbags manufactured by the Japanese company Takata.

By law, carmakers have to report major problems so they can be fixed. But that can often take years.

After defective Firestone tires in Ford Explorers led to more than 200 reported deaths more than a decade ago, Congress passed the TREAD act in 2001.

"Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation."

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Failed airbags are reportedly one reason NHTSA is under scrutiny over failures to make the TREAD act effective.

CBS News

It's a complicated name with seemingly simple goals: Require car makers to track and report defects so the National Highway Safety Administration or NHTSA can order fixes, impose fines and potentially file criminal charges.

By almost everyone's account, it is not working.

"Exactly the problem that we were trying to avoid when we passed this law seems to be continuing and it seems to be a pattern that's happening over and over again," said Colorado congresswoman Diana Degette.

Following Firestone and after TREAD, Toyota's problem with unintended acceleration festered.

It took years to fully fix.

Earlier this year, GM's ignition switch recalls began, 10 years after GM and NHTSA first discussed the problem. Now, Takata airbags.

NHTSA was first notified about exploding airbags in 2008. They didn't issue an urgent advisory to consumers until last month.

"What we're seeing is, this agency goes from crisis to crisis to crisis," said Sean Kane, an auto safety analyst.

Kane says NHTSA is not getting enough information from auto manufacturers, and what they do receive isn't being acted upon.

Just last week, Ferrari was sanctioned by NHTSA for never reporting a single accident.

"There's a clear competency problem, there's a lack of process, there's a lack of controls at this agency, and there's also far too cozy a relationship with the industry that they govern," said Kane.

NHTSA would not answer our questions about the TREAD act, but they are now under investigation by the Department of Transportation. That investigation is over their handling of the Takata airbag recalls.

  • Jeff Glor

    Jeff Glor was named anchor of the Sunday edition of the "CBS Evening News" in January 2012 and Special Correspondent for "CBS This Morning" in November 2011.