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Feds Overlooked Car Safety Problems, Says Internal Report

In the wake of a series of serious safety problems, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has promised to crack down on the auto industry. But the federal agency is itself now under fire for alleged lapses.

A 42-page internal review to be published Friday will charge the agency that regulates automotive safety with falling short in recent years, including failing to uncover the General Motors ignition switch problem now linked to 110 deaths, according to published reports in the Detroit News and the New York Times.

"Collectively, these weaknesses have resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked," says the study, prepared by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General.

The report's official release will follow a Tuesday hearing on auto safety held by the Senate Commerce Committee. Among those called to testify are DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel and NHTSA’s new administrator, Mark Rosekind. During his confirmation hearings in December Rosekind promised to make changes at the agency and now says he will “aggressively implement” the auditor’s 17 major recommendations by next June.

Each year, millions of vehicles are recalled due to a variety of safety problems, but the total surged to more than 60 million in 2014, more than double the previous record.

There have been an unusual number of high-profile cases recently, including an ongoing series of recalls triggered by faulty Takata airbags and fires involving Jeeps. But NHTSA has taken particular heat for failing to uncover problems with various General Motors vehicles equipped with faulty ignition switches. The automaker recalled 2.6 million vehicles last year while admitting it waited a decade to respond to the problem.

GM recalls more than 200,000 SUVs

NHTSA hit GM with a $35 million fine in May 2014. The maker itself launched a victims’ compensation program that has since confirmed more than 110 deaths connected to the ignition switch problem. GM also faces both individual lawsuits and an ongoing criminal probe by the U.S. Justice Department that some believe could result in more than $1 billion in fines.

The new auditor’s report contends NHTSA failed to properly review safety issues and then didn’t take required action against automakers when problems were discovered. It also did not properly train or supervise its staff. The study cites examples of instances where defects surfaced but were not followed or acted upon, including issues with faulty GM airbags.

Currently, staff members ignore 90 percent of the roughly 330 consumer complaints that arrive each day. And the inspector general's report faults NHTSA for failing to open investigations when the facts would justify them.

The agency’s actions, says the report, "lack transparency and accountability. Specifically, ODI does not always document the justifications for its decisions not to investigate potential safety issues and does not always make timely decisions on opening investigations."

The agency itself has complained that it is seriously understaffed considering the workload it faces, and the White House in February asked Congress to triple the budget for NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation. ODI currently has just 60 workers but wants 380.