Tomorrow, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's acting administrator, David Friedman, returns to capitol hill to testify before the Senate's consumer protection subcommittee. If you want a preview of how his appearance might go, check out the New York Times.
That's not because the Times has some kind of crystal ball. Based on the beating Friedman took during his last appearance before the subcommittee, no one would need tea leaves, yarrow stalks, or entrails to divine how he may fare this time around.
Nor is it because Friedman is a bad public speaker. On the contrary, given the circumstances -- namely, the heightened scrutiny on vehicle safety in the wake of GM's ignition recalls and questions about why NHTSA didn't spot the problems sooner -- he probably performed as best he could.
No, it's because the New York Times has done a lot of research into the matter of consumer complaints about automobiles and NHTSA's corresponding work -- or lack thereof -- to get to the bottom of those complaints.
It's a long read, and authors Hilary Stout, Danielle Ivory, and Rebecca R. Ruiz have tried to tell as full and nuanced and complicated a story as possible. We won't try to summarize their entire piece here, but a few highlights should be enough to persuade you to give it a look over your lunch break. For example:
- NHTSA spends about as much cash on investigating complaints as it does on issuing safety ratings for new cars. That would be fine, except (a) some think the ratings program is unnecessary and perhaps biased, and (b) the agency has asked for an increase to its ratings budget this year, but not its investigation budget, the latter of which is woefully inadequate.
- NHTSA has an official process for following up on complaints after fatal accidents. One element of that process involves sending a questionnaire to the maker of the automobiles involved. However, the agency makes it optional for automakers to answer the most important question on that form -- basically, the one that asks, "so, what caused this accident?". (Because of the Times' investigation, though, that appears to be changing.)
- NHTSA has a history of failing to recognize patterns of problems, even when faced with thousands of consumer complaints. It was late to draw conclusions about Ford and Firestone in the 1990s. It failed to recognize the problem with Takata airbags, which have now resulted in millions of recalls around the globe. And just a month before GM announced its first "Switchgate" recall, when NHTSA had received some 2,000 complaints about ignition failures in subsequently recalled models, the agency still couldn't see it coming.
Senators may ask about some of those findings and others at tomorrow's hearing. But chances are that much of the conversation will focus on what the agency can do to improve its work. Does it need more funding? Should it abandon its ratings program, which is carried out by other institutions and organizations like the IIHS? Should there be more firewalls placed between NHTSA and automakers to undo their arguably cozy relationship?
We'll find out more tomorrow.