• Are Feds’ Traffic Safety Data Flaws ‘Enabling’ Highway Deaths?

    More than 400 people are predicted to die in automobile crashes over the Independence Day weekend, even as controversy grows over whether the federal highway safety agency knows what it’s doing.

    The National Safety Council estimates that 409 people will die in automobile crashes, while another 49,500 will be injured over the weekend. Some of those fatalities will be related to defects in their vehicles, but, despite spending billions of dollars and issuing recalls involving millions of cars and trucks, a government watchdog reported recently that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration makes recall decisions based on unreliable data.

    NHTSA’s “processes for collecting vehicle safety data are insufficient to ensure complete and accurate data,” according to a June 22 Department of Transportation Inspector General report.

    That report was not the first time the IG has pointed out the flaws in NHTSA’s data.

    IG has warned NHTSA officials for more than a decade that their staff training and data collection and analysis for safety defect investigations – the precursor to recalls – is inadequate, The Daily Caller News Foundation reported earlier this week.

    “It doesn’t sound like NHTSA has the fundamental data-science assets necessary to identify, quantify and address vehicle defects,” said Kelly Blue Book Senior Automotive Analyst Karl Brauer. “I’ve heard this for years. You need to make sure you’re collecting data effectively and analyzing it effectively.”

    The longstanding flaws in NHTSA’s data collection didn’t deep the agency from issuing 803 recalls in 2014, including most recently one of more than 8.7 million General Motors vehicles for problems with ignition switches that were first reported to the federal agency in 2003.

    NHTSA’s data collection relies mainly on police reports, which typically don’t include information on safety defects. Vehicular factors only makes up around 2 percent of annual roadway deaths, according to NHTSA.

    But defects can be lethal. The GM ignition switch problem resulted in 110 deaths in accidents after drivers lost steering and brake functions as a result of the defect, according to the agency.

    Some critics have little sympathy for NHTSA.

    NHTSA officials are “enabling” automakers to hide how many of those deaths are caused by safety defects, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety President Jackie Gillan.

    “NHTSA isn’t connecting the dots and is not asking the right questions,” she said. “We have seen in the exposé the shortcomings of the agency and the auto industry hiding these deaths. You have an agency that’s enabling this.”

    The poor data collection stems from two factors, Gillan said: Manufacturers’ cover-up of safety defect-related deaths and NHTSA’s inadequate investigations.

    For example, Gillan said GM hid deaths related to its ignition switch for 12 years, which, in conjunction with NHTSA’s inability to collect adequate data, caused the death toll to be underestimated.

    Brauer agreed: “Unfortunately, that sounds possible.”

    Further, Gillan charged that the police reports aren’t adequate to provide accurate determinations for the cause of an accident.

    “Crashes are caused by a lot of factors,” Gillan said. “Those police reports and subsequent [NHTSA] investigations … were really quick to assign fault.”

    Brauer added that it would be better if NHTSA broke the data down better. He noted that it seems unlikely that crashes the agency blamed on alcohol caused air bag failure.

    Conversely, NHTSA’s poor data analysis could leave a lack of evidence to support recalls.

    “They could be issuing recalls or notifying problems when there may not be a problem,” Brauer said. “Anything’s possible once you don’t have a solid analysis of data.”

    NHTSA’s relationship with automakers could also pose a problem for aggressive investigations.

    “There’s also the longstanding issue of NHTSA employees being too friendly with the manufacturers because so many of them end up working at an automaker when they leave the government agency,” Brauer said.

    Also, NHTSA lenient penalties for concealing information, such as a fine capped at $35 million or settlements with details sealed from the public, give manufacturers little motive to turn over relevant data, according to Gillan.

    “This is what made it so easy for GM,” she said. “It’s almost an incentive to cover it up.”

    “It’s going to be pretty interesting to see how the government is going to evolve this situation,” Brauer said. “I hope it addresses this problem in the short and long term.”

    NHTSA and GM did not return requests for comment.

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