An outside team of auto safety systems experts will spend the next year advising the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on how to implement new reforms to strengthen its defect investigations, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

This three-man safety systems team will assist the federal agency in adopting operational changes outlined in a newly released internal report, “NHTSA’s Path Forward.” The report includes a review of NHTSA’s actions surrounding the General Motors ignition switch recall and identifies shortcomings of NHTSA’s defect investigation. The agency’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) is responsible for identifying vehicle safety defects.

The number of approved death compensation claims tied to defective GM ignition switches has climbed to 111, according to a June 8 report from  

NHTSA has also launched an Internal Risk Control Innovations Program. This project brings together NHTSA staff from across the agency to address emerging safety risks that cut across NHTSA’s enforcement, vehicle safety and behavioral safety efforts.

The “NHTSA’s Path Forward” report concludes that both GM and NHTSA contributed to the years-long delay in recalling GM vehicles with defective ignition switches.

A GM engineer initially approved the faulty ignition switch, even though it fell short of the automaker’s torque specifications and allowed a key to be jostled out of the “run” position. Later, NHTSA failed to hold GM accountable for providing inadequate information. When the agency’s Early Warning Division requested details from GM about multiple collisions in which air bags failed to deploy, GM provided scant information and invoked legal privilege, according to the report. 

“Rather than push back and request more information, NHTSA analyzed the incomplete responses, preventing NHTSA from having a complete understanding of all the incidents in question,” the report says.

Eventually, the air bag non-deployments would be tied to the ignition switches’ failure to keep the key in the “run” position. Inadvertent movement to the “accessory” or “off” position had disabled the air bags.

The report also concludes that both GM and NHTSA lacked a thorough understanding of advanced air bag technology. Investigators from both GM and NHTSA for years failed to recognize the connection between key position and air bag function.

Additionally, the report says NHTSA failed to identify and follow up on apparent trends embedded within the agency’s own investigation results. In some instances, this failure resulted from a lack of communication and data sharing among different groups within the federal agency. NHTSA also didn’t adequately probe alternate theories about what caused the air bag non-deployments.

To address such shortcomings, the new safety systems team will assist the agency in implementing six improvements: 

  • Increasing the auto industry’s accountability, focusing on audits and collecting information
  • Increasing NHTSA’s knowledge base of new and emerging technologies
  • Enhancing ODI's approach to detection and analysis
  • Enhancing information management, analysis and sharing
  • Establishing improved controls for assessing potential defects
  • Ensuring effective communications and coordination within ODI and between ODI and the Special Crash Investigation Division.

"NHTSA has identified improvements, some already in progress and some we plan to make, to better investigate, identify and remedy defects that threaten public safety," Foxx said.

The safety systems team members are Joseph Kolly, director of the Office of Research and Engineering at the National Transportation Safety Board; J. Victor Lebacqz, former associate administrator for aeronautics research at NASA; and Dr. James P. Bagian, director of the Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety at the University of Michigan.

NHTSA also released a second report, which addresses the budgetary and workforce boosts needed to implement such changes in how the agency investigates potential auto defects. This report, “Workforce Assessment: The Future of NHTSA’s Defects Investigations,” offers two separate models. The “minimum boost” model requires increases of $23.64 million and 92 full-time staff members. The “new paradigm” model, which proposes dramatic changes to NHTSA’s enforcement program, requires increases of $89 million and 380 full-time staff members, according to the report.