There is no doubt the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration is busy given the record numbers of automobile recalls already logged in 2014, and there are four more months to go. The recalled cars total over 40 million and counting, which is good if you're selling hamburgers but not so much if you're fixing automotive defects.
There is a long-term issue with the NHTSA for which the government agency is now being investigated; a delay in processing petitions made by drivers about recalling specific vehicles for defects.
By a law established in 1974, NHTSA must decide for or against a petition within four months of receipt of a petition. Of the 15 petitions filed by drivers since 2010, NHTSA has failed to meet that deadline 12 out of 15 times.
It is ironic given the NHTSA is in the business of riding herd on automakers, tasked with incentivizing them not to tarry on recall decisions. Recent NHTSA fines against Hyundai, GM and Toyota for not getting it done attest to that. When the NHTSA misses a deadline, automakers can't fine it, however.
"Everything is just really slow," Matt Oliver, executive director of the North Carolina Consumers Council, told the AP. "You have to ask, is everything going as efficiently as it can?" The council petitioned in February 2012 on behalf of drivers who wanted an investigation of Nissan truck transmission failures. It has yet to get a decision.
NHTSA claims mea culpa, but also claims it's not getting timely feedback from petitioners when it asks for more information or input to help it reach a decision.
However, in a review of eight petitions by the Associated Press, NHTSA took over a year to open an investigation or close a case.
The delays in the process can impact safety for drivers, passengers and bystanders. Where it is especially dangerous is in cases where a certain vehicle's record of injuries and deaths precedes NHTSA action by an extended amount of time. NHTSA's slow response to 13 deaths caused by GM's faulty ignition switch problem, and the agency's foot-dragging on Jeep fuel tank fires that led to multiple injuries and one death, are cited as examples when serious issues are left in the "to do" pile without any sense of urgency.
In the Jeep case, NHTSA took nine months to grant a petition and formally investigate the incidents. During the interval between when the petition was filed and when a recall was put into place, there were at least 31 deaths attributed to the flammable Jeep fuel tank.
Part of the problem is that NHTSA is sometimes the last resort for consumers who have been stonewalled by automakers when trying to get a safety defect addressed. The agency claims that it is underfunded and understaffed, and not able to handle all of the consumer complaints that should have gone no further than the automakers in question. The NHTSA said investigations can also be stalled by uncooperative automakers.