Markey Calls for NHTSA Transparency

Documents released Wednesday by Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey show that Wisconsin State Police came up with the same two-and-two as NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigation team during its 2007 investigation of a 2005 Chevy Cobalt crash that led to two deaths.  Too bad neither NHTSA nor GM thought they added up to four.

On October 24, 2006, Megan Ungar-Kerns, 17, was at the wheel of her 2005 Cobalt, returning from a trip to Walmart on a rural Wisconsin highway, when her vehicle suddenly drifted off the roadway at about 60 mph. The Cobalt hit a raised driveway and sailed through the air about 60 feet, before striking a telephone pole and two trees. The trio was not wearing their seatbelts and no airbags deployed. Natasha Weigel, 18, and Amy Lynn Radebaker died of their injuries. Ungar-Kerns survived with permanent injuries.

A crash investigation report issued by the Wisconsin State Police in February, noted the October 2006 GM Technical Service Bulletin about inadvertent power loss due to the ignition switch moving from the run to accessory position. They determined no other cause of the crash:

“The two front seat airbags did not deploy. It appears that the ignition switch had somehow been turned from the run position to accessory prior to the collision with the trees,” the report stated.

Markey released it and a few other documents that GM submitted to NHTSA, as part of the Death Investigation (DI), during a transportation appropriations hearing held by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx was the sole witness. The report didn’t add much new to the known narrative, but spotlighted legislation he has sponsored with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal requiring manufacturers to submit more detailed information to NHTSA in the event of a fatal crash.

The Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act “would require NHTSA make the information it receives from auto manufacturers publicly available in a searchable, user-friendly format so that consumers and independent safety experts can evaluate potential safety defects themselves,” according to a Markey news release.

EWR: Elective Warning Reports - When Manufacturers Don't Report Claims

Last week was a case of déjà vu all over again, to quote Mr. Yogi Berra, as NHTSA, and one of its “regulatory partners,” General Motors, faced their Congressional interlocutors, for the second performance of Safety Accountability Theater since 2000, when Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. Fourteen years ago, it was the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire fiasco that set all those hands a-wringing. Five years ago, it was Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Now, its GM ignition switches.

These come-to-Jesus gatherings were supposed to be obviated by the creation of the Early Warning Reporting (EWR) system. A major component of the TREAD Act, EWR requires manufacturers to submit reams of death, injury, property damage, warranty and other data to the government on a quarterly basis. It’s an honor system that depends on truthful reporters.

More than a year ago, SRS discovered three death and injury claims that had not been reported through EWR, and sought out NHTSA to confirm this apparent lapse and determine NHTSA’s policy toward manufacturers that did not submit reportable injury claims. As is usually the case when we try to help our favorite federal agency, SRS got crickets. And, as is usually the case in that circumstance, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what they did about the information we gave them, and the agency’s policy for ensuring that reportable claims were getting into the system.

As is usually the case, NHTSA said that it had practically no information to share. As is usually the case, SRS called B.S. filed an appeal, and when that failed, took it to the U.S. District Court. And, as is usually the case, NHTSA found more responsive materials.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge signed a Settlement Agreement between SRS and the DOT in which the government paid our legal fees. As is usually the case.

Safety Research & Strategies Sues U.S. DOT in (Another) FOIA Dispute

Safety Research & Strategies, an automobile and product safety research and consulting firm, today filed its fourth Freedom of Information lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation, alleging that it has improperly held documents regarding Early Warning Reports.

The lawsuit emanates from two instances in which manufacturers allegedly did not report serious injury claims against them to NHTSA, as required under the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act’s Early Warning Reports (EWR) provision. One crash occurred in April 2009, involving a tire tread separation which resulted in an occupant sustaining a serious closed head injury. The second crash occurred in June 2010, involving the apparent failure of Harmony Lite Rider child restraint, which caused severe injuries to two young children.

“EWR data is supposed to alert the agency investigators to defect trends,” says SRS President Sean E. Kane. “But if manufacturers don’t report complete and accurate information, the system doesn’t work.”

Harmony, which manufactured the child safety seat and Nankang, the Taiwanese tire manufacturer, and Tireco, the tire importer, were notified of these claims via civil lawsuits in August 2010 and November 2011, respectively. Neither, however, showed up in a search of the manufacturer’s quarterly reports to NHTSA.

In March, SRS informed the director of the Office of Defects Investigation Frank Borris, and NHTSA’s Senior Associate Administrator for Safety, Daniel C. Smith, of these apparent omissions. The memo requested confirmation that these claims should have been submitted to the agency via a quarterly EWR submission, and “what actions the agency plans to take.” After receiving no reply, SRS submitted, in May, a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking any documentation that NHTSA followed up with Harmony, Nankang or Tireco, as well, as the agency’s policies and procedures around EWR, and a manufacturer’s failure to submit a reportable incident.  

Further Tinkering to EWR Unlikely to Make it More Useful

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing amendments to the Early Warning Reporting system, ostensibly to sharpen it as a tool in the Office of Defects Investigation’s back pocket, but outside researchers who regularly parse EWR data say that the proposal misses huge opportunities to actually make the system better. 

In 2000, Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act in the wake of the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire fiasco. The Early Warning Reporting system, a major component of the legislation, requires manufacturers to submit reams of death, injury, property damage and warranty data to the government on a quarterly basis. The information was supposed to help government investigators identify defect trends before they become full-blown debacles.

And yet, nearly a decade later, EWR did nothing to prevent the Toyota Unintended Acceleration disaster that has resulted in deaths, injuries, property damage crashes, 11 recalls related to floor mat entrapment, trim panel interference and sticking accelerator pedals, the alleged causes of the unintended acceleration complaints. So, you might expect that the agency, which could never have seen that one coming – what with the numerous consumer petitions pleading for answers, serial investigations into the problem, and recalls that never seem to make the complaints go away – would adjust its EWR reporting categories accordingly.

Toyota: Honesty is More Than Just a Word

When Toyota starts talking about honesty – as they did, while paying a $16.4 million fine for violating the recall regulations – we start patting down the data. An interesting snippet floated by yesterday. As our readers know, manufacturers are required to file Early Warning Reports every quarter – information about legal claims, warranty data, production numbers, deaths and injuries – to help NHTSA spot emerging defect trends.

This regulation, enacted as part of the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation Act with great speed and good intentions, has had its share of problems. There was the four-year battle over what information would be public. (The agency and safety advocates envisioned a largely public data system; the manufacturers had an entirely different idea. Guess who won?). Then there has been the suggestion that EWR has not actually been useful as a statistical canary in a coalmine. Now we’re going to have to raise a few questions about coding.