WASHINGTON – The Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General has released an audit report that concludes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) needs to implement reforms to its process for identifying and addressing vehicle safety defects.

NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) is responsible for determining whether vehicles and vehicle equipment have design, construction or performance defects that pose a safety threat and require a safety recall.

DOT’s Office of Inspector General initially launched its NHTSA ODI audit in February 2010. In late 2009, consumer complaints alleging unintended acceleration in vehicles made by Toyota, as well as some other automakers, had placed NHTSA ODI under greater public scrutiny for its role in public safety. The Office of Inspector General audit was eventually expanded further at the request of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Congress.

The newly released report cites NHTSA ODI’s limited information sharing and coordination with foreign countries. As a result, the report concludes, NHTSA ODI is hindered in its ability to identify safety defects and issue recalls in an increasingly global auto industry. 

The Office of Inspector General report concludes that NHTSA ODI lacks systematic processes for:

Tracking consumer complaints, and retaining and documenting records of pre-investigation decisions

Determining when to use third-party or Vehicle Research and Test Center assistance

Ensuring timely investigations of defect complaints

Documenting investigation information

Protecting consumers' personal information on its website

Assessing workforce needs

Training investigators.

The audit report includes 10 recommendations for NHTSA Administrator David Strickland:

1. Revise the pre-investigation processes to ensure that the review of each complaint is recorded and that complaints are tracked to associated investigations in the Advanced Retrieval of Tire, Equipment, and Motor Vehicle Information System (ARTEMIS).

2. Establish pre-investigation processes for retaining and storing pre-investigation records, such as investigation proposals and insurance company data.

3. Require that decisions made and actions taken by ODI Defect Assessment Panels are recorded, including justifications for not proceeding to investigations.

4. Establish systematic processes for determining when a third-party or the Vehicle Research Test Center should be used to verify manufacturer information or assist in identifying a potential defect.

5. Revise the ODI investigation process to require justifications for continuing or closing investigations that exceed timeliness goals.

6. Revise the ODI investigation process to establish criteria for documenting evidence, such as associated complaints, meetings with manufacturers and other stakeholders, and third-party analysis or testing conducted.

7. Strengthen ODI’s redaction policy and process to better protect consumers’ personal information from public availability, such as by using automated redaction software.

8. Conduct a workforce assessment to determine the number of staff required to ensure that ODI meets its objectives and determines the most effective mix of staff.

9. Develop a formal training program to assist ODI staff in acquiring the knowledge and staying abreast of ODI processes and current and new automobile technologies.

10. Develop and implement a strategy for increasing coordination with foreign countries to enhance ODI’s ability to identify safety defects and to exchange information on foreign recalls.