— The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has spent years going in circles but never really getting anywhere, that's according to reports which detail the agency's failures in the General Motors ignition switch catastrophe.
Admitting it failed for over 10 years to protect American consumers from deadly GM ignition switches, NHTSA said its past investigations have fallen short and allowed automakers to call the shots about safety defects.
NHTSA says it didn't catch GM's ignition switch failures because the agency believed what GM said, even though GM was not honest with NHTSA. The safety agency now admits it failed to understand the technology behind how airbags work, especially in relation to what happens when the ignition key moves out of the "run" position.
NHTSA further says it accepted what GM said without verifying if what the automaker said was true. Additionally, the agency said it failed by not looking deep enough into reported defects.
The government said there were situations where it asked GM for answers, but even though the automaker didn't provide the answers, NHTSA didn't push the issue.
A pattern of problems over the years can be seen by reading documents on NHTSA's website related to defect investigations. The agency would open an investigation, but from there most of the responsibility was left to the very automaker under investigation. NHTSA stepped back and allowed the automaker to investigate itself and then turn over the findings to the government.
If what the automaker said wasn't true, NHTSA didn't know because it didn't verify what was true and what wasn't.
NHTSA has used the excuse of being under-staffed and under-funded to properly handle the massive workload thrown upon the agency. From all indications, that "excuse" is true and the agency is now trying to expand its workforce, including by hiring outside expert investigators.
The agency says it needs about $90 million to hire almost 400 workers. As a comparison, NHTSA said the Federal Railroad Administration has 678 enforcement workers and the Federal Aviation Administration has 6,409.
NHTSA? It's enforcement workforce consists of 90 employees.
The agency says it wants a "go-team" of investigators, similar to what the FAA has for crashes involving airplanes. NHTSA's investigating team would be on call 24/7 to travel into the field and investigate serious defect reports.
NHTSA seems to have finally seen the light and now understands putting its trust in auto companies might not be the wise choice.
Admitting it's been reactive instead of proactive, the government will now request more details from automakers, including about past legal actions related to a possible defect. Because many auto defect lawsuits are settled quietly out of court, NHTSA hasn't known about an auto manufacturer admitting liability in court about a safety defect.
The government said it will improve the ability to hold manufacturers accountable by auditing the companies and suppliers, learning more about new technologies and by questioning assumptions made about alleged safety defects.
What does all this mean to the driving public? It's likely cars will be safer, but it's also likely the price of cars will increase as automakers are forced to meet more stringent safety regulations.