The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was subjected to harsh criticism from members of Congress last year. In several hearings discussing the NHTSA response to auto defects, the effectiveness of the body was called into question. Some claimed that the NHTSA was beholden to auto makers and purposefully delayed its investigations to protect them. Others claimed that the NHTSA was incompetent and had not kept up with the technology in cars today. The hearings brought headlines. It is not clear that they will bring action.
When General Motors released several models using a defective ignition switch, potentially endangering drivers, passengers and other vehicles on the road, the NHTSA had limited power to hold them accountable. The largest fine the NHTSA is allowed to level was equal to less than 1/10th of 1 percent of GM’s profits for 2013. The NHTSA investigation took years to conclude. While many vehicles were eventually recalled, the incident likely had no effect on how GM will handle the next potentially deadly defect it encounters.
An individual buying a car hopes the car will be safe. That individual has little power, and frankly not that much motivation, to make sure Congress has rules in place to oversee auto makers and their products. The auto companies themselves have massive power and substantial interest to make sure that their interests are protected when a defective vehicle is sold to consumers. The imbalance can only be overcome by Congress members who put public safety over special interests. That nearly guarantees that auto companies will continue to act with impunity.
The NHTSA is not a deterrent for auto companies. They are not equipped to force auto makers to create safe vehicles and to respond when unsafe cars and trucks hit the roads. Whether that will continue to be the case going forward remains to be seen.
Source: Politico, “Congress stays in slow lane on auto safety,” by Kevin Robillard, 15 February 2015