Inadequate Data and Analysis Undermine NHTSA’s Efforts To Identify and Investigate Vehicle Safety Concerns
Since February 2014, the General Motors Corporation (GM) has recalled 8.7 million vehicles in the United States due to an ignition switch defect that can unexpectedly shut down the engine and disable power steering, power brakes, and air bags. The defective ignition switches have been linked to more than 110 fatalities and 220 injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) identified the GM air bag non-deployments as a potential safety issue but ultimately decided not to investigate the problem. The Secretary requested that we assess NHTSA’s vehicle safety procedures and determine whether NHTSA had information on GM’s ignition switch issues.
ODI’s processes for collecting vehicle safety data are insufficient to ensure complete and accurate data. Deficiencies in ODI’s vehicle safety data are due in part to the Agency’s lack of detailed guidance on what information manufacturers and consumers should report—resulting in inconsistent data that ODI investigative chiefs consider to be of little use. Weaknesses in ODI’s processes for analyzing vehicle safety data further undermine ODI’s efforts to identify safety defects. Specifically, ODI does not follow standard statistical practices when analyzing early warning reporting data, and ODI does not thoroughly screen consumer complaints or adequately train or supervise its staff. Collectively, these weaknesses have resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked. Finally, ODI’s process for determining when to investigate potential safety defects is insufficient to prompt needed recalls and other corrective actions. While ODI has identified factors for deciding whether an investigation is warranted, it has not developed sufficient guidance or reached consensus on how these factors should be applied. ODI’s investigation decisions also lack transparency and accountability.
NHTSA concurred with all 17 of our recommendations to improve ODI’s processes for collecting and analyzing vehicle safety data and for determining which potential safety issues warrant investigation.