Vehicle Defect Investigations Hit All-Time Low

As a consumer you trust your vehicle to provide safe and reliable transportation. When something goes wrong in the manufacturing process, the vehicle defect can cause serious injury, or even death. That’s why careful regulation of the auto industry is so important. But the numbers are in, and in 2017 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s new vehicle defect investigations hit an all-time low: 13.

Vehicle Safety Is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Job

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a division of the United States Department of Transportation. Its website identifies its mission as:

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for keeping people safe on America’s roadways.”

A key part of that responsibility has traditionally been to conduct vehicle defect investigations to uncover hidden problems with the manufacture of vehicles sold in the U.S. before they cause fatal or other serious injury accidents.

NHTSA Under President Trump Backs Away from Vehicle Defect Investigations

Recently, Consumer Reports published an article announcing that the NHTSA’s vehicle defect investigations reached an all-time low in 2017. The agency averaged 61 investigations per year between 2006 and 2015. It reached its peak of 204 in 1989, under President George H.W. Bush. But the number had been on a decline overall since 2002. In 2016 there were 21. But in 2017 the agency hit an all-time low of 13 new vehicle defect investigations.

There are several possible factors that contribute to the low number. Regulating agencies like the NHTSA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau tend to reduce regulation and enforcement under more conservative control. However, according to Tracy Hresko Pearl, of Texas Tech University, the extent of the current drop-off is jarring and “really unprecedented.”

The reduction could also be due to a lack of clear leadership. The NHTSA has been without a chief since the beginning of the Trump Administration in January 2017. Deputy Administrator Heidi King has been appointed but the full Senate has yet to confirm her nomination.

NHTSA Says Drop in Investigations is Made Up for Through Other Enforcement

The NHTSA responded to Consumer Reports’ investigation with its own explanation for the low numbers. Its written statement said that two consent orders, with General Motors and Fiat Chrysler have resulted in closer oversight, more open communication, and less need for formal vehicle defect investigations. However, the GM consent order ended in May 2017 and FCA’s order will expire this month. Whether the close communication will continue without a court order seems unlikely.

Reduced Enforcement Happens in the Wake of Major Recalls and Reports of Cost Cutting by Auto Manufacturers

The drop in vehicle defect investigations is particularly concerning in light of recent recalls initiated by the NHTSA that each affected tens of millions of people, including problems with GM ignition switches and the Takata airbag scandal. Together, these vehicle defects were responsible for dozens of deaths and injuries.

It also raises concerns among auto safety and consumer protection advocates due to increases in the number of recalls in recent years. According to an industry report earlier this year, vehicle recalls are on the rise – both in the number of different issues and in the number of cars affected. The authors of the study attributed the trend to a lack of quality control by auto manufacturers, parts manufacturers, and suppliers. They rely on regulators like the NHTSA to pick up the slack and issue recalls when problems arise. The trend gives even more weight to the prediction of Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety:

“The American public is relying on this agency to be a cop on the beat. … People expect the federal government to protect them. … Absent that, there’s going to be a tremendous void in motorist safety.”

With the NHTSA backing away from vehicle defect investigations, it will be up to auto law lawyers to pick up the slack. By including vehicle defect claims in their personal injury lawsuits, attorneys can hold the automakers responsible. Unfortunately, these lawsuits are based on an accident that has already happened. It can’t prevent harm the way a vehicle recall investigation can.

At Macomb Law Group, our personal injury attorneys know how to blend auto law cases with product liability lawsuits. If you have been injured by a defective vehicle, contact Macomb Law Group and get our team working for you.


  • James Spagnuolo

    I began working in personal injury law more than 20 years ago, starting as a law clerk during my first year of law school at Wayne State University School of Law in Detroit. After passing the bar exam in 2002, I went on to become a partner at a series of law firms before opening the Macomb Law Group in 2017.

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