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NHTSA faulted for defect investigation delays, internal processes

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top auto safety regulator is failing to complete defect investigations and upload related documents in a timely manner, potentially limiting its ability to address “rapidly evolving and severe” risks to motorists, a government audit found.

In a report released Wednesday by the US Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General, auditors reviewed a sample of investigations conducted in 2018, 2019 and 2021 to determine whether the agency has adequate tools, processes and resources to probe and identify safety defects. The audit was conducted between May 2021 and March 2023.

Despite efforts to restructure its office, modernize its data systems and enhance its investigative processes, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation does not meet its internal deadlines for investigations and relies on legacy information systems that impede its ability to conduct defect analysis, according to the report.

Additionally, the agency “does not consistently document information used for investigating and identifying potential safety defects or following its issue escalation processes for opening investigations,” the report said.

NHTSA’s target for completing a preliminary evaluation or recall query is 120 days after the investigation’s opening, while an engineering analysis — an upgraded safety probe and a step before the agency seeks a possible recall — is 365 days after.

Of the 27 investigations in the 2018-19 sample, 26 (96 percent) did not meet the agency’s internal deadlines, auditors found. On average, preliminary evaluations spent 617 days open and engineering analyzes spent 1,001 days open.

Of the eight investigations in the 2021 sample, seven (nearly 88 percent) did not meet the deadlines. On average, preliminary evaluations and engineering analyzes spent 296 and 307 days open, respectively.

According to agency staff and management, the delays were caused in part by limited resources amid an “overwhelming increase in correspondence” as well as management’s decision-making, approval process and documentation review.

Auditors also said the agency has not integrated investigations, recalls or manufacturer communications into a centralized data management system, and that it does not always record key documentation in its investigative files when analyzing defects, as required by federal law.

Of the 24 applicable investigations in the 2018-19 sample, 22 files — ranging from information request letters to case briefing documents — were missing, auditors found.

In all eight of the investigations in the 2021 sample, auditors found NHTSA did not follow written procedures.

In one instance, “an investigator’s notes from quarterly meetings with manufacturers were only recorded in handwritten notes inaccessible to other investigators,” the report said. “Therefore, other investigators could not determine what happened in those meetings, and the manufacturer did not take action.”

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