By Eric D. Lawrence and Todd Spangler, THE DETROIT FREE PRESS
January 9, 2019
Federal workers must go without pay, national parks are a mess, and now vehicle safety investigations are on hold.
The agency responsible for investigating defects in the nation’s cars, trucks and SUVs does not plan to do so during the government shutdown. It’s the latest in a growing list of impacts caused by a political test of wills between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats over funding for a border wall.
On Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirmed that its investigators will be not be performing some key tasks, including defect investigations.
“During a government shutdown, some key agency functions will be discontinued until funding is restored. Functions funded by the Highway Trust Fund will continue, while those funded by annual appropriations will be suspended, including safety defect investigations, field crash investigations, review of consumer complaints, and notification of new vehicle and equipment recalls,” according to a statement from the agency.
On Tuesday, it emailed the Free Press what it called “further clarification”:
“If NHTSA becomes aware of an imminent threat to the safety of human life that could be caused by defective or noncompliant motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment, NHTSA will respond to protect safety. Furthermore, federal law requires that all vehicle manufacturers issue appropriate recalls when a manufacturer becomes aware of any defect in the design, manufacture or performance of any motor vehicle, or noncompliance with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard.”
That assurance did not sit well with safety advocates.
Joan Claybrook, who ran NHTSA in the Carter administration and later was president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said suspending defect investigations and the review of complaints coming in from manufacturers and consumers means that people are not being alerted about possible dangers being reported at this time.
“That’s one issue, the danger to the public,” she said.
She also noted that while investigations can take years, that important work isn’t happening and a long suspension can postpone needed action.
“It means that even though these investigations take time, it’s going to be delayed even more,” she said. “If it’s a serious, serious hazard, that repair is going to be made much later.” She added, however, that the auto companies could still take the initiative and “alert the public themselves” of potential defects.
Jason Levine, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety, questioned the administration’s priorities.
“If there’s any question as to whether this unnecessary shutdown has a direct impact on the safety of America’s roads, just look to the Trump Department of Transportation decision that enforcing vehicle safety standards is not necessary for the safety of life and preservation of property,” Levine said.
He said the suspension of such investigations is indicative of a wider attitude.
“With over 37,000 traffic crash deaths and millions of related emergency room visits and vehicle crashes every year, the administration’s cavalier attitude towards safety during the shutdown sadly is in line with the leadership of NHTSA lacking the will to open inspections into cars catching on fire or forcing industry to accelerate the completion of the millions of unrepaired recalled Takata airbags. At least under normal operations, career public servants are allowed to try and do their jobs at a safety agency,” Levine said, referencing fires reported in Hyundai and Kia vehicles.
Carmen Balber, executive director of California-based Consumer Watchdog, said the issue of recalls, in particular, is a worry at this time.
“The one big area we’re concerned that the shutdown might impact the public (related to) NHTSA is recalls — public safety could be at risk if any company was on the verge of issuing a safety recall, or if NHTSA was on the verge of requiring a recall, that is now delayed until the government goes back to work,” Balber said.
In December, NHTSA had 13 active defect investigations, including upper steering column separations in 2008-13 Toyota Highlanders, power steering failures in 2010 Ford Fusions and spontaneous sunroof breakage in 2011-13 Kia Sorentos. Based on the response from NHTSA, it would appear those investigations are suspended.
The Free Press has requested an update on NHTSA’s review of the so-called Jeep “Death Wobble,” where some drivers report a violent shaking in the steering column after hitting a bump at highway speeds, but that would likely also be on hold.
Vehicle defects can describe a wide range of problems, from the mundane to the serious. Issues such as exploding Takata air bags — this was one of NHTSA’s open investigations in December — and the General Motors ignition switch scandal have been blamed for scores of fatalities and injuries around the world.
“The safety and security of all Americans is a priority for this president which is exactly why he is committed to securing the border and ending this crisis,” according to a White House official. “The Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have procedures in place to recall furloughed employees if they become aware of information concerning suspended functions that involve imminent threats to the safety of human life or protection of property.”