Audit faults U.S. auto safety agency on training, staff oversight

WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - The top U.S. auto safety regulator has failed to make a number of safety improvements agreed in 2011 in areas including staff oversight and the training of vehicle defect investigators, a federal audit released on Friday said.

Cars pass by trees laden with snow along Hwy 50 west of South Lake Tahoe, California December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Fred Greaves

The U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had not done enough to implement the changes aimed at protecting car users that were agreed to after its 2011 audit of NHTSA.

Safety advocates have repeatedly complained about NHTSA’s perceived sluggish response to major auto safety issues and evidence of potentially deadly defects in vehicles on U.S. roadways including defective air bags, runaway cars and faulty ignition switches.

The 2011 audit was conducted after criticism of NHTSA's handling of consumer complaints about the sudden unintended acceleration of Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T vehicles. Toyota ultimately recalled more than 14 million vehicles worldwide due to the issue.

The new report found NHTSA failed in a majority of cases to explain why it delayed completing investigations in a timely fashion. The agency also failed to ensure it was retaining safety records and had not implemented a training program, it said.

“As a result, (NHTSA’s defects investigation) staff may not be sufficiently trained to identify and investigate potential vehicle defects, or ensure that vehicle manufacturers take prompt and effective action,” the report said.

It also voiced concern about what it described as NHTSA’s “lack of mechanisms to ensure that staff consistently apply” changes.

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said NHTSA needs to do more.

“For the past two years, I have voiced serious concern about NHTSA’s ability to detect and deal with new safety hazards. This report confirms those concerns - NHTSA needs to step it up before we see more mass recalls,” Nelson said in a statement.

The new audit follows a critical audit by the same office issued in June in the aftermath of General Motors Co's GM.N recalls of defective ignition switches linked to 124 deaths and 275 injuries.

That audit found NHTSA failed to carefully investigate safety issues, hold automakers accountable, collect data or properly train and supervise staff. It also found the agency rejected most requests by staff to open new investigations.

NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said on Friday that the agency agrees with all of the recommendations in both the new audit and last year’s audit and “intends to implement the recommendations by June 30.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Brown