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.

You would be wrong. Instead, the agency is proposing only minor changes to add new reporting categories relating to emerging technologies. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would mandate that automakers specify the vehicle type and the fuel and/or propulsion system type in their quarterly EWR submissions, and add new component categories of electronic stability control, forward collision avoidance, lane departure prevention, and backover prevention system for light vehicles and stability control system for buses, emergency vehicles, and medium-heavy vehicle  manufacturers. In addition to the EWR proposals, this document proposes to require motor vehicle manufacturers to report their annual list of substantially similar vehicles via the Internet.

(The NPRM also dealt with recall notification procedures. We will be submitting comments to the docket on the latter and will address those proposals in a separate blog.)

In comments submitted to the NPRM docket, Randy and Alice Whitfield, ofQuality Control Systems Corp. – who have used EWR data extensively, published their methodology in a peer-reviewed journal and sued NHTSA successfully for access to EWR data – have challenged the agency to go back to the drawing board and come back with a proposal that might make EWR data much more useful:

“We suggest the implementation of a coding system for light vehicle deaths and injuries claims which links the category of the allegedly failing component with a separate code denoting the type of failure that is alleged. Such a system would take careful planning to propose and to put into practice. But it would be better to begin this planning now than to continue another nine years with an early warning system so lacking in necessary detail that NHTSA’s own analysts don’t rely on it for anything more than performance in a supporting role.”

EWR data consists of aggregates of broad defect categories, such as “airbags” and “seat belts.” The Whitfields point out that “airbag” related death and injury claims have been submitted nearly 25,000 times, without even the broadest of sub-categories about the defect – such as non-deployment, inadvertent deployment. “Seat belts” is another category with lots of manufacturers’ reports – 5,000 – but no detail regarding what is failing in the seatbelts – Retractors? Buckles? Webbing? Anchorages? Why wouldn’t NHTSA want to know?

EWR has been a troublesome regulation from the get-go. Almost immediately upon rulemaking, NHTSA steamrolled the original presumption that the data would be mostly public. There was a court battle between the Rubber Manufacturers Association and Public Citizen over the accessibility of tire claims data. When the hullabaloo died down, warranty claims, consumer complaints to the manufacturer, field reports, common green tire information, production data for all except light vehicles, and the last six digits of the vehicle identification number in death and injury claims were kept confidential. Only death, injury and property damage information was included in the public dataset.

In the 2007 Final Rule, NHTSA amended the definition of “fire” to more accurately capture fire related events, eliminated the requirement to produce hard copies of product evaluation reports, and required automakers to update missing vehicle identification number (VIN)/ tire identification number (TIN) or components on incidents of death or injury to a period of no more than one year after NHTSA received the initial report.

How well does NHTSA believe that EWR has fulfilled its purpose? Depends on the day.

In the Preliminary Regulatory Evaluation, NHTSA said: “Since 2004, EWR data have played a role in the opening of 150 Preliminary Evaluations (PEs). Among those 150 PEs, 31 PEs have been opened based on EWR data, with the remaining 119 PEs supported—but not initiated—by EWR data.”

In an undated document entitled Public Release of EWR Data, the agency said:

As of October 1, 2011, NHTSA has used the EWR data in 225 investigations; 68 were launched because of EWR data alone; 157 were prompted by other information but supported by the EWR data.

To the National Academies of Science committee on electronic throttle controls, representatives of the Office of Defects Investigations said EWR lacked detail:

“In briefings to the committee, ODI analysts noted that the EWR data lack the detail needed to be the primary source for monitoring the fleet for safety defects and that the main use of these data (especially the field reports) has been to support defect monitoring and investigations by supplementing traditional ODI data,” according to the Safety Promise and Challenge of Automotive Electronics: Insights from Unintended Acceleration

In the PRE, NHTSA said:

“Though benefits in terms of lives saved and injuries prevented are nearly impossible to quantify, the agency believes that EWR data possess valuable predictive and monitoring information that may assist in the identification of potential safety-related defects in motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment.”

“If that is true, why did the system fail so badly with regard to the Toyota UA recalls?” Randy Whitfield said.