We often believe because an entity exists, a problem is solved. Because there is a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), many presume that someone is watching out for us, the consumer and driver of motor vehicles. We trust that when a vehicle is sold with a five-star crash rating from NHTSA, that it is safer than a vehicle with a three-star or no star rating.

This year, the car manufacturers are on a pace to recall 48 million vehicles. This breaks the record of 30 million from 2004. And at the same time, a record number of vehicle will receive a five-star crash rating.


Well, of course, as the General Motors recall of defective ignition switches demonstrated, sometimes recalls will include cars that are many years’ old and not just current models. But it also raises questions of how effective NHTSA has been at investigating defective cars.

Why did it take almost a decade for GM to recall vehicles with the ignition switch in spite of a growing number of car accidents with fatalities tied to those vehicles? Why was NHTSA still claiming that there was not sufficient evidence of a problem to even begin an investigation a month prior to the recall? In a situation like this, should not NHTSA use an investigation to uncover evidence?

What is most egregious is that consumers, with no special expertise, warned of the dangers with the ignition switch years earlier and some derived their information from the public database of consumer complaints.

Why did NHTSA, which has many highly trained automotive engineers and other experts, fail to discover this? Surely, they have sophisticated information and databases that would allow them to pick out safety defects long before the public suspects there is a problem?

And if not, why not? Is that not the function an agency like NHTSA should be performing? Instead, it appears that in addition to having little regulatory bite, as shown by the fact that the agency has not ordered a vehicle recall in 34 years, they now spend half of their budget creating their star rating reports, which the auto manufacturers use as marketing material.

An agency like NHTSA supposed to be a watchdog over the carmakers, not their lapdog.

The New York Times, “Regulator Slow to Respond to Deadly Vehicle Defects,” Hilary Stout, Danielle Ivory and Rebecca R. Ruiz, September 14, 2014