The US Transportation Department released a report this week that revealed deficiencies in how the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration handles investigations. These findings show that the NHTSA does not consistently document information and routinely fails to complete defect investigations in a timely manner.
For the report, auditors from the US Transportation Department's Office of Inspector General conducted a two-year investigation, reviewing a sample of NHTSA investigations conducted from 2018 to 2021. The goal was to determine if the NHTSA has the necessary resources, tools, and processes effectively conduct investigations and identify safety concerns.
Internally, the NHTSA's goal is to complete a preliminary investigation within 120 days, with a full engineering analysis and recall determination following in less than 365 days. The audit sampled 35 investigations from 2018 to 2021, revealing that 33 of those investigations, or 94 percent, did not meet those deadlines. On average, preliminary evaluations took 617 days, with the engineering analysis requiring over 1,000 days to complete.
Additional findings revealed the agency does not consistently document information or follow its internal processes for opening and conducting investigations. In the same sample of cases, auditors determined that most investigations were missing files, including information requests and briefing documents, or did not follow the NHTSA's internal processes and procedures.
According to the NHTSA, the issues were partially caused by limited resources to handle a high volume of information and correspondence. It also cited its decision-making, including review and approval processes, as reasons for delays. Additionally, despite efforts to modernize its systems and processes, the agency still relies on legacy information systems and inefficient processes to conduct its investigations.
The NHTSA has also not integrated its processes using a centralized data management system. As a result, information, including recalls, manufacturer communications, and other correspondence, is not consolidated as part of its investigations. This lack of integration resulted in missing documentation and a lack of key documentation required by federal law.
In its report, the US Department of Transportation outlined 12 recommendations for the NHTSA to improve its processes, including determining its realistic timeliness goals and revising them as necessary. The recommendations are considered "resolved but open pending implementation" by NHTSA.
NHTSA investigations primarily focus on US traffic safety, including reducing deaths caused by accidents or defects like faulty airbags. More recently, it has investigated the use of new technology, including autonomous driving and in-car video gaming.