The efficacy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency Section is being called into question for a second time this year. These newest round of questions are the result of a few agency blunders dealing with a recent spat of air bag recalls.

A quick bit of background – Section 31301 of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) required recall information to be made available online and searchable by VIN.  During the rulemaking to implement this law NHTSA required automakers, in parallel to establishing their own VIN look-up tool, to also establish a means to feed daily information on recalls to NHTSA thus allowing the agency to duplicate the automaker’s online tools. At the time I wrote that NHTSA’s VIN look-up tool was redundant, created confusion and adds very little in terms of value to vehicle owners (i.e. NHTSA can’t fix your vehicle, but Honda could link you directly to nearest dealer with needed parts should your VIN reflect an open recall).

It made no sense at the time for NHTSA to duplicate the VIN look-up tool, but like a screaming kid in Wal-Mart they got their sparkly new toy – and right away they broke it.

Last week NHTSA issued a “consumer advisory” to highlight the safety risk regarding exploding air bags. The agency encouraged vehicle owners to use the agency’s brand new VIN look-up tool to determine if their vehicle was covered under the recall.  The only problem – the list of recalled vehicles was incorrect and the look-up tool, NHTSA’s crowning achievement, immediately crashed taking the entire website with it. The public was stirred into a panic and all NHTSA had to offer them was a Connection Reset by Peer error. Untitled

At this point you have to begin to ask questions like is this a culture issue? A there resource problems? Is the business of identifying and addressing vehicle safety defects really that hard? Regardless of the root cause of the agency’s performance, and whatever comes from the newly announced White House review of NHTSA’s handling of the air bag recalls and the DoT Inspector General review of the GM ignition recall – I anticipate we will hear three key reasons excuses for why NHTSA isn’t performing at 100%.

1) Running an agency without a leader is hard. Did you really respect your substitute teacher?

This is standard operating procedure for government. When an agency is caught in a controversy the first reaction is to point out that there is no confirmed agency head. The next step – offer up a nominee for conformation. This will allow the Deputy, the person who has been running the agency, to go back to his position as the unaccountable Yes Man and remain the long-term pillar for a culture who is either unable, or uninterested in regulating the automotive industry. A culture that seems more focused on making posters and hashtags.

2) Money, more of it. We need more money – like, a bunch more.

The question “Do you have the resources you need?” is Congress 101.  It’s the knee jerk reaction as there can be no bad press for a member of Congress who is looking to “beef up” oversight of an agency who is looking out for his or her constituency. But I’m here to tell you – NHTSA probably has 99 problems, but money is not one of them.

Their issue isn’t a lack of funds, but rather a misappropriation of their top line budget. You see ODI, the group responsible for the enforcement mission (i.e. recalls) has been funded at $10M for the last three years.  Earlier this year Senator McCaskill highlighted this same issue during a hearing with NHTSA.  And while the FY15 budget does say NHTSA intends to add three new employees to ODI – the pie chart below shows, at least from a funding perspective, NHTSA’s primary focus is grants. One might argue that NHTSA has become a jobs program for states in a way.



Another interesting point – NHTSA’s hotline, the touch point between the agency and the public, is a “turn-key” product procured through a government contract. Your vehicle safety complaints are so important to the agency that they hired someone to take your messages for them. I’m sure there is a cost benefit analysis that supports NHTSA’s decision to outsource their hotline function, but then again GM also conducted a cost benefit analysis; that went over very well.

Speaking of automakers….

3) They don’t tell us everything they know when they know it.

This has some truth to it. Automakers are privy to certain information like field reports and warranty/liability claims much sooner than NHTSA, but much of that information is required to be reported to the agency under quarterly Early Warning Reporting (EWR) requirements. If the reporting requirements of EWR aren’t working NHTSA should propose changes to ensure they get the information in a more timely manner or a more helpful format.

An alternative to changing EWR – more sunshine.

This is where the rubber meets the road and where many, including members of the Senate, want NHTSA to go. Much of the back-and-forth between automakers and NHTSA isn’t available to the public.

Is GM debating a request from NHTSA to conduct a geographically-limited recall? You and I will never know. Why not have NHTSA write a strongly worded letter to GM on the issue and publish it online? In other words invite the public and media into the foray.

The push back from many on this behind-the-curtain approach is that you:

1) Burn bridges, resulting in a less cordial and thus less productive working environment – one where automakers share even less information.

2) You invite the uneducated masses into the conversation. I buy this point to a degree, especially after reading comments submitted by the public on NHTSA’s proposed mandate on Vehicle-to-Vehicle technology. I had no idea so many Americans were allergic to WiFi.

NHTSA has to do better.

Look, I get it – the agency has a large mission – to make operating a vehicle as safe as possible. That isn’t an easy mission and in terms of fatalities they are doing great. At the same time I get the feeling the focus lately has been on things like posters and hashtags (thanks distracted driving!) and not enough on emerging vehicle technologies, data sciences and hiring qualified staff. NHTSA needs to ensure they are investing in the right technology and skills today to make sure they can identify and address the defects of tomorrow.