The government shutdown has made a mess of our national parks and caused many federal workers to go without pay. But, according to a report in the Detroit Free Press, there is one other important government department that has been affected by the shutdown – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – the agency responsible for investigating defects in the nation’s cars, trucks and SUVs. The agency has said it will not perform several key tasks during the shutdown including vehicle defect investigations.
Investigations to Be Suspended
Some of the functions funded by the Highway Trust Fund will continue, but other vital functions including safety defect investigations, field crash investigations, review of consumer complaints and notification of vehicle and equipment recalls will not take place, a statement from the agency said.
However, agency officials told the Free Press that if the agency becomes aware of an imminent threat to the safety of human life that could be caused by faulty or noncompliant vehicles or equipment, NHTSA will respond despite the shutdown. Also, federal law requires that all automakers issue appropriate recalls when they become aware of any defect, NHTSA said.
Serious Safety Concerns
But this “assurance” is not sitting well with safety advocates and rightly so. Joan Claybrook of the Public Citizen told the Free Press that suspending safety defect investigations and review of consumer complaints means people are not being alerted about potential vehicle dangers. She also pointed out that investigations typically take years and the longer NHTSA takes to initiate these investigations, much-needed action could be postponed, putting more consumers at risk of injury or death.
While automakers could take the initiative and alert the public themselves, history has repeatedly shown us that they are not very good at doing that. Often, it’s taken significant arm-twisting on the part of NHTSA to get them to announce a recall. Advocates also worry that public safety could be at risk if a company or NHTSA was on the verge of issuing a recall and that is now delayed due to the shutdown. As of December, NHTSA had 13 active defect investigations including Ford Explorer carbon monoxide leaks and steering column separations in 2008-2013 Toyota Highlanders.
Our auto defect lawyers are also extremely concerned about the repercussions of this shutdown on consumers. The recall system is already an imperfect one. Any further delays in safety investigations and issuing safety recalls could put all of us in grave danger.