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It’s past time for government to act on safety lapses by industry, regulators

The scope of the failures by the auto industry and the federal regulatory agency overseeing it becomes more breathtaking almost by the day.

The Obama administration has already undertaken an investigation to determine why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has failed in its duty. Congress should also act.

The Senate Commerce Committee has said it would hold a hearing Wednesday to consider the nomination of Mark Rosekind, a former NASA scientist and NHTSA board member, to the agency’s top job, which has been vacant for almost a year. The panel should act swiftly and efficiently to fill that key position.

The agency is playing catch-up in its oversight role, and much of that increasing momentum is thanks to dogged investigative reporting by the media.

The latest: Honda Motors has admitted failing to report more than 1,700 claims of injury or death involving its cars to regulators, a violation that would be one of the worst in history and could lead to a fine of $35 million.

An internal review by the NHTSA showed Honda blaming the underreporting on “inadvertent data entry or computer programming errors.”

That explanation might have a small chance of persuading the skeptical were it not for the fact that these “errors” spanned 11 years.

It turns out the number of injury claim omissions exceeded the 1,144 reports Honda did manage to file over that time and were mainly discovered because investigations into Takata Corp. airbag recalls forced another look at the willingness of automakers to tell the government about potential product defects. Honda went so far, in some cases, as to hold back from the NHTSA information from police reports.

Honda could be facing a well-deserved fine of historic proportions for not disclosing to the agency what it knew about product defects in its cars. It is against the law for companies not to disclose what they know about customer injuries, lawsuits, warranty claims and complaints.

From faulty ignition switches to defective airbags, the stories are shocking. And the industry’s nonresponse and the NHTSA’s lack of oversight are appalling.

The New York Times has reported exhaustively on stories involving General Motors, other automakers such as Honda and their parts manufacturers. Airbag supplier Takata stands out among the worst offenders.

One reason automakers keep quiet about defects is that the maximum fine for failure to report defects – $35 million – is not anywhere near high enough to deter automakers from concealing even dangerous defects. Congress should increase the fine considerably.

Critics have accused the NHTSA of being too cozy with the automakers. That would explain some of the NHTSA’s reluctance to do its job of ensuring safety on the roads, and also needs to be addressed.

Recent demands by the agency for wider recalls of defective parts are unfortunately coming too late for accident victims and their families.