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How much is the NHTSA to blame for auto recall scandals?

Drivers across the country are getting behind the wheel with much more trepidation these days. This is because 2014 has been a record year for automotive recalls. There was, of course, the General Motors recall scandal for defective ignition switches. And recently, nearly a dozen automakers have issued or expanded recalls of 7.8 million vehicles in the U.S. due to air bags with a potentially deadly defect.

All these companies purchased their air bags from Japanese auto parts supplier Takata. The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission is urging owners of affected cars to get their vehicles fixed immediately. But that isn’t possible because Takata has not been able to keep up with manufacturing demands. In the midst of these and other recall scandals, fingers are beginning to point back at the NHTSA.

Like many government entities, the agency has been criticized in recent years for being too slow to respond to problems and ineffectual when it does. Criticism really rose after the GM ignition switch scandal. Investigations revealed that the NHTSA was made aware of problems on a couple different occasions but decided not to follow up.

But should we be so quick to blame the NHTSA for all these problems? First of all, doing so seems to be a distraction from the more culpable parties: the automakers themselves. Moreover, a government agency is only as powerful and effective as the authority it is given and the budget it receives.

The NHTSA is responsible for handling most everything having to do with the safety of American roads, including but not limited to investigating dangerous auto defects. It must do this important job with a relatively small budget and relatively few investigators. If we want the NHTSA to have broader powers to fix these problems and prevent defect-related car accidents, more funding and more regulatory authority are needed. Some have even suggested taxing car companies based on U.S. sales to bring in extra revenue.

It should be noted that the NHTSA has dropped the ball more than once this year. Therefore, the agency is not above reproach. But until or unless the NHTSA gets more funding and greater regulatory powers, we can only expect so much.

Source: Automotive News, “NHTSA in line for cultural overhaul after airbag meltdown,” Jeff Plungis, Oct. 24, 2014

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