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United States Government Accountability Office: 
GAO: 

Testimony: 

Before the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and 
Insurance, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. 
Senate: 

For Release on Delivery: 
Expected at 2:30 p.m. EDT:
Wednesday, July 27, 2011: 

Traffic and Vehicle Safety: 

Reauthorization Offers Opportunities to Extend Recent Progress: 

Statement of Susan Fleming, Director:
Physical Infrastructure Issues: 

GAO-11-866T: 

GAO Highlights: 

Highlights of GAO-11-866T, a testimony before the Subcommittee on 
Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance, Committee on 
Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate. 

Why GAO Did This Study: 

Traffic fatalities and fatality rates have substantially decreased 
over the last 10 years, yet far too many people continue to be killed 
or injured on the nation’s roadways. In addition, auto safety defect 
recalls are on the rise. On average, about 70 percent of vehicles 
subject to a recall are fixed, leaving the remainder to continue 
posing risks to vehicle owners, passengers, and pedestrians. The 
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administers 
programs that provide grants to states to improve traffic safety and 
oversees the identification and remedy of vehicle and equipment 
defects that could pose an unreasonable risk to safety. The upcoming 
reauthorization of surface transportation programs affords Congress an 
opportunity to strengthen these grant programs in several ways and to 
address gaps GAO identified in NHTSA’s auto recall process. 

This statement addresses (1) NHTSA’s progress in improving oversight 
and performance measurement for traffic safety grant programs, (2) NHTSA
’s oversight of the auto safety defect process, and (3) issues for 
Congress to consider in reauthorizing funding for traffic and vehicle 
safety programs. This statement is based primarily on reports GAO has 
issued since enactment of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient 
Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) on issues 
related to traffic safety-—including NHTSA’s oversight of state 
traffic safety programs, traffic safety grants, and high-visibility 
enforcement-—and NHTSA’s auto recall process. 

What GAO Found: 

NHTSA has made good progress in recent years in improving oversight 
and performance measurement for traffic safety grant programs. As GAO 
recommended in 2003, NHTSA improved the consistency of its oversight 
process, including conducting a management review of each state at 
least once every 3 years. In addition, NHTSA developed a tool to track 
states’ implementation of management review recommendations and 
encourage states to act on NHTSA’s guidance. To improve performance 
measurement for traffic safety grant programs, NHTSA has published two 
sets of performance measures to assist states in implementing and 
improving traffic safety programs and data systems. These measures are 
an important step in moving toward a more performance-based, data-
driven grant structure, and respond wholly or in part to GAO 
recommendations to improve state accountability for grant funds. 

In a June 2011 report on NHTSA’s safety defect recall process, GAO 
identified a number of challenges that affect parts of the recall 
process, including recall completion rates (the number of defective 
vehicles that are fixed): 

* identifying and notifying vehicle owners of auto safety defects; 

* motivating vehicle owners to comply with notification letters; 

* providing better information to vehicle owners and the public; 

* using existing data to improve completion rates; and; 

* lack of authority to notify potential used car buyers about 
outstanding recalls. 

GAO also identified several options or changes that could address some 
of the challenges to the safety recall process and increase safety for 
the motoring public. For example, NHTSA could modify the way 
manufacturers must present information in safety defect notification 
letters and publicize information resources, like NHTSA’s Web site, so 
that vehicle owners are better motivated and informed. NHTSA may also 
be able to use manufacturers’ data to identify what factors make some 
recalls more or less successful than others. Most of these options are 
within the scope of NHTSA’s current authorities and would require 
minimal investment of staff and other resources. NHTSA is currently 
exploring a few of these options. However, the options have advantages 
and disadvantages that will require careful consideration before being 
adopted. 

In reauthorizing funding for NHTSA’s traffic and vehicle safety 
programs, Congress has an opportunity to address a number of issues 
that GAO has previously identified. One such issue is whether to move 
further toward improving state accountability for traffic safety grant 
funds by linking state performance with traffic safety grant awards. 
Another issue is whether the individual safety incentive grant 
programs can be restructured or their requirements adjusted to 
simplify application procedures and allow states more flexibility in 
the use of the grant funds. Still another issue is whether NHTSA’s 
authority should be expanded to help ensure that purchasers of used 
cars are aware of any defects that have not been remedied following a 
recall. 

View [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-866T] or key 
components. For more information, contact Susan Fleming @ (202) 512-
2834 or flemings@gao.gov. 

[End of section] 

Chairman Pryor, Ranking Member Toomey, and Members of the Subcommittee, 

I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this hearing to discuss 
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) traffic 
and vehicle safety programs. NHTSA's traffic safety grant programs are 
a key part of federal efforts to reduce traffic fatalities. During the 
last several years, the United States has seen a remarkable decline in 
traffic fatalities, from 43,510 in 2005 to an estimated 32,788 in 
2010. Fatality rates have also dropped over that time, from 1.46 to 
1.09 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, the lowest 
rate since 1949. Despite this encouraging trend, far too many people 
are still killed or injured on our nation's roadways every day. In 
addition, although traffic fatalities have decreased, in 2010 auto 
manufacturers recalled a record 14.9 million vehicles to address a 
range of safety issues such as malfunctioning air bags and faulty 
steering columns. On average, about 70 percent of vehicles subject to 
a recall are fixed within the 18-month period during which 
manufacturers provide recall completion data to NHTSA, while the 
remainder may continue to pose risks to vehicle owners, passengers, 
and pedestrians. Congress has also expressed concerns about whether 
NHTSA has the authority it needs and whether vehicle owners are being 
effectively motivated to remedy their vehicles. The upcoming 
reauthorization of Department of Transportation (DOT) programs offers 
the opportunity to revise federal programs to better assist states in 
addressing traffic safety issues and to enhance NHTSA's recall 
authority. 

My testimony today addresses (1) NHTSA's progress in improving 
oversight and performance measurement for traffic safety grant 
programs, (2) NHTSA's oversight of the auto safety defect process, and 
(3) issues for Congress to consider in reauthorizing funding for 
traffic and vehicle safety programs. My statement is based primarily 
on reports we issued since the enactment of the Safe, Accountable, 
Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users 
(SAFETEA-LU)[Footnote 1] on issues related to traffic safety--
including NHTSA's oversight of state traffic safety programs, traffic 
safety grants, high-visibility enforcement, older driver safety, and 
teen driver safety--and NHTSA's auto recall process. (See the list of 
related GAO products at the end of this statement.) For the reviews 
related to traffic safety, we analyzed traffic fatality data from 
NHTSA and selected states; examined NHTSA's evaluations (triennial 
management reviews) of state processes and procedures, including 
corrective action plans; visited selected states; analyzed the quality 
of state traffic data systems; and reviewed relevant documents, 
including legislation, regulations, guidance, and state plans and 
reports. We also interviewed NHTSA officials, state traffic safety 
officials, and other traffic safety stakeholders, including 
representatives from local law enforcement agencies and safety 
organizations such as the state's AAA club or Safety Council 
association. For the review of NHTSA's auto recall process, we 
interviewed NHTSA officials, auto manufacturers, and other auto 
industry stakeholders about NHTSA's role in the recall process and the 
benefits and challenges of the recall process for NHTSA and 
manufacturers. In addition, we compared NHTSA's authority to the 
authorities of other selected federal and foreign agencies that 
oversee vehicle recalls, and conducted focus groups with vehicle 
owners to better understand their awareness of recalls and willingness 
to comply with recall notices. We conducted these audits from July 
2002 through June 2011 in accordance with generally accepted 
government auditing standards. More detailed information on the scope 
and methodology of our previous work can be found with each issued 
report. 

Background: 

During the past decade, the number of motor vehicle fatalities has 
substantially decreased, from 43,510 in 2005 to an estimated 32,788 in 
2010. Fatality rates have also dropped over that time, from 1.46 to an 
estimated 1.09 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (see 
figure 1). 

Figure 1: Trends in Traffic Fatalities and Fatality Rates (2005-2010): 

[Refer to PDF for image: combined vertical bar and line graph] 

Year: 2005; 
Fatalities: 43,510; 
Fatality rate (per 100 million vehicle miles traveled): 1.46. 

Year: 2006; 
Fatalities: 42,708; 
Fatality rate (per 100 million vehicle miles traveled): 1.42. 

Year: 2007; 
Fatalities: 41,259; 
Fatality rate (per 100 million vehicle miles traveled): 1.36. 

Year: 2008; 
Fatalities: 37,423; 
Fatality rate (per 100 million vehicle miles traveled): 1.26. 

Year: 2009; 
Fatalities: 33,808; 
Fatality rate (per 100 million vehicle miles traveled): 1.13. 

Year: 2010 (estimated); 
Fatalities: 32,788; 
Fatality rate (per 100 million vehicle miles traveled): 1.09. 

Source: GAO analysis of NHTSA data. 

[End of figure] 

Most traffic fatalities are related to human behavior, including 
speeding, alcohol impaired driving, and improper or no use of safety 
belts or child safety or booster seats. As the use of electronic 
devices has grown, distracted driving has also increasingly been 
identified as a cause. Certain populations, including motorcyclists 
and both elderly and teen drivers, are more likely to be involved in 
serious accidents. Data on these and other traffic safety areas are 
critical for NHTSA and states to identify and address key traffic 
safety issues and trends. 

Through SAFETEA-LU, Congress authorized $2.4 billion for fiscal years 
2005 through 2009 for programs to provide safety grants to assist 
states in their efforts to address these issues and reduce traffic 
fatalities.[Footnote 2] The largest portion of funds provided by 
SAFETEA-LU, or about $1 billion, was allocated for the continuation of 
State and Community Highway Safety grants to states for a variety of 
traffic safety issues, including law enforcement activities, 
improvements to training programs, or media campaigns, among others. 
These grants are allocated to states through a formula that considers 
a state's road mileage and population. SAFETEA-LU also modified or 
added five safety incentive grant programs to enhance safety belt use, 
child safety and child booster seat use, alcohol impaired driving 
countermeasures, motorcyclist safety, and state traffic safety 
information systems. These incentive grants are awarded to states that 
meet certain criteria for each grant, such as enacting safety belt 
laws and child restraint laws, achieving alcohol-related fatality 
benchmarks, or implementing training programs, among others. In 
addition, SAFETEA-LU authorized funding for high-visibility 
enforcement campaigns that combine intensive enforcement of a specific 
traffic safety law--such as a safety belt use law or an impaired 
driving law--with extensive media communication to educate and 
persuade the public of the law's safety benefits. NHTSA and states use 
SAFETEA-LU grants--including State and Community Highway formula 
grants, safety belt grants, and alcohol impaired driving 
countermeasures grants--to support high-visibility enforcement 
campaign activities. 

NHTSA is responsible for implementing programs designed to address two 
of the three types of factors that contribute to crashes--human 
behavior and vehicle factors.[Footnote 3] To address behavioral 
factors, NHTSA oversees state traffic safety grant programs by 
reviewing states' management of these grants and assessing states' 
progress in improving safety outcomes. For example, NHTSA monitors 
states' spending and conducts triennial management reviews designed to 
ensure that states manage grants effectively, efficiently, and in 
compliance with laws and regulations. NHTSA also assesses a state's 
performance against state-established safety goals and national safety 
outcomes by examining state highway safety plans and annual reports. 
NHTSA conducts special management reviews of states with consistently 
high alcohol-related fatality rates or low safety belt use rates and 
less than half of the national average improvement in these areas over 
time. A special management review is an in-depth evaluation of a 
state's impaired driving or safety belt use program that NHTSA uses to 
recommend program improvements. In addition, at states' request, NHTSA 
coordinates voluntary technical program assessments conducted by 
leading independent experts who review state programs in one of seven 
traffic safety areas and recommend program improvements. In 2003, we 
reported that NHTSA used management reviews and resulting improvement 
plans inconsistently across its 10 regional offices.[Footnote 4] This 
inconsistency made it difficult to ensure that states used federal 
funds in accordance with requirements and that they addressed program 
weaknesses. As a result, we recommended that NHTSA provide more 
specific guidance to its regional offices on when to conduct 
management reviews and use improvement plans, and how to measure state 
progress toward meeting safety goals. In response, NHTSA developed new 
policies for its regional offices on when it is appropriate to use 
management reviews and improvement plans to assist highway safety 
programs. The new procedures direct NHTSA to conduct management 
reviews in each state at least once every 3 years. In addition, they 
direct NHTSA to work collaboratively with states in developing 
performance enhancement plans (formerly known as improvement plans) 
when a state fails to meet performance goals, shows substandard 
performance, or fails to show improvement toward a priority safety 
goal over a 3-year period. 

As part of its mission, NHTSA is also responsible for the oversight of 
manufacturers' compliance with safety standards and the identification 
and remedy of vehicle and equipment defects that could pose an 
unreasonable risk to safety. NHTSA oversees compliance recalls (for 
instances of noncompliance, such as improper placement of warning 
labels for airbags), and safety defect recalls (for the potential of a 
vehicle component to fail and endanger safety--for example, a steering 
column could break and suddenly cause partial or complete loss of 
vehicle control), which represent the majority of recalls overseen by 
the agency. The auto safety defect recall process for motor vehicles 
is a concerted effort involving a number of stakeholders, including 
NHTSA, auto manufacturers, franchised dealerships, and vehicle owners. 
[Footnote 5] Auto manufacturers are primarily responsible for 
conducting auto safety defect recalls, while NHTSA oversees the recall 
process, in part by reviewing the actions manufacturers plan to take 
to remedy vehicles and monitoring the effectiveness of recall 
campaigns based on several considerations, including a campaign's 
completion rate (the number of defective vehicles that are repaired). 
NHTSA also provides guidance and information to the public on safety 
defect recalls, chiefly through its Web site, [hyperlink, 
http://www.safercar.gov]. 

According to NHTSA officials, since 2000, all safety defect recalls 
for passenger vehicles--noncommercial cars, sport utility vehicles, 
large vans, minivans, and pickup trucks--have been conducted 
voluntarily by manufacturers. Although some of these recalls were 
conducted based on NHTSA's investigations of safety defects--known as 
influenced recalls--most were initiated by manufacturers without 
influence from agency investigations. NHTSA has the authority to order 
an auto manufacturer to conduct a recall, but it has not done so in 
the last 11 years. According to NHTSA officials, the agency tries to 
convince manufacturers to conduct influenced recalls based on NHTSA's 
investigations rather than attempt to prove the case for an ordered 
recall through the courts, which the officials said can take a long 
time and require substantial agency resources. 

NHTSA Has Improved Oversight and Performance Measures for Traffic 
Safety Grants: 

NHTSA has taken several steps to better oversee states' management of 
federally funded safety grants and move toward a more performance- 
based, data-driven grant structure. 

Oversight: 

As we recommended in 2003,[Footnote 6] NHTSA improved the consistency 
of its traffic safety grant oversight process, including implementing 
the requirement added by SAFETEA-LU that NHTSA conduct a management 
review of each state at least once every 3 years.[Footnote 7] In 
addition, NHTSA developed a tool--the corrective action plan--to track 
states' implementation of management review recommendations and 
encourage states to act on the agency's guidance. 

In 2008, we reported that NHTSA's initiatives to improve the 
consistency of its management reviews also had the potential to 
improve the information available to it for analysis--such as 
information on common grant management challenges faced by states--and 
thus could provide an opportunity for NHTSA to further enhance its 
oversight.[Footnote 8] However, NHTSA did not have a process for 
analyzing its management review recommendations on a national level, 
identifying common challenges faced by states, and directing training 
and technical assistance resources accordingly. Furthermore, NHTSA was 
not tracking at a national level the extent to which states had 
implemented its recommendations--information that we noted could help 
NHTSA assess the impact of its oversight. We recommended these steps, 
and, in 2009, NHTSA implemented an electronic tracking system that 
documents the recommendations NHTSA has made to states during its 
reviews. NHTSA also analyzed these recommendations and, in 
collaboration with the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA)--an 
association of state highway safety offices that implement programs to 
address behavioral highway safety issues--offered training to states 
on common challenges. Such training addressed planning and 
administration, equipment and indirect costs, and performance 
measures. NHTSA also used information on states' implementation of 
management review recommendations to develop webinars in conjunction 
with GHSA to help states address common issues that prevent them from 
implementing NHTSA's recommendations. 

Performance measurement: 

In collaboration with GHSA, NHTSA has developed a minimum set of 
performance measures to assist states in developing and implementing 
traffic safety grant programs. Such performance measures are a key 
component in tracking states' progress toward safety goals and to 
provide information on what areas should be prioritized for 
improvement. In the past, we have called for a fundamental 
reexamination of the nation's surface transportation programs, 
including the institution of processes to make grantees more 
accountable by establishing more performance-based links between 
funding and program outcomes.[Footnote 9] More specifically, in 2008, 
we recommended that NHTSA establish a minimum set of performance 
measures for states to consistently report high-visibility enforcement 
activities funded with federal dollars.[Footnote 10] While states are 
required to include performance goals and measures for high-priority 
program areas in their annual highway safety plans,[Footnote 11] 
states have not used such measures consistently in these plans. For 
example, GHSA reported that the number of measures used by states 
ranged from 4 to 115. In 2008, NHTSA published a minimum set of 14 
performance measures that cover key traffic safety program areas, such 
as overall fatalities and injuries, fatality and injury rates, seat 
belt use, impaired driving, speeding, motorcyclist safety, and teen 
driver safety. States were also encouraged to use additional measures 
for other priority areas as appropriate. The minimum set of measures 
includes measures that should fulfill our recommendation related to 
high-visibility enforcement activities: number of citations issued for 
failure to use seat belts and for speeding and number of arrests made 
for impaired driving during grant-funded enforcement activities. 
According to NHTSA officials, all states have used the minimum set of 
performance measures in developing their highway safety plans for 
fiscal years 2010 and 2011. 

NHTSA and GHSA also developed a set of model performance measures to 
help states monitor and improve the quality of the data in their six 
core traffic record systems: crash, vehicle, driver, roadway, 
citation/adjudication, and emergency medical system/injury 
surveillance. States use these systems to collect and analyze data to 
help identify priorities for traffic safety programs. Improvements to 
these systems are funded, in part, by NHTSA's state Traffic Safety 
Information Systems Improvement grant. Last year, we reported that 
states were making progress in improving the quality of the six core 
systems, but that system quality--as measured by the performance 
attributes of timeliness, accuracy, completeness, consistency, 
integration, and accessibility--varied considerably by system and 
attribute.[Footnote 12] For example, across all data systems, we found 
that states met NHTSA's performance criteria for the attribute of 
consistency 72 percent of the time but met the criteria for the 
attribute of integration 13 percent of the time. We recommended that 
NHTSA take steps to ensure that traffic records assessments--which 
help states identify and prioritize improvements to traffic safety 
data systems--provide an in-depth evaluation that is complete and 
consistent in addressing all performance attributes across all state 
traffic safety data systems.[Footnote 13] In 2011, NHTSA published a 
model set of 61 performance measures that address the six performance 
attributes for the six core data systems. For example, the model 
includes two performance measures recommended for assessing the 
timeliness of a state's crash database--the mean number of days taken 
to enter crash data into the database and the percentage of crash 
reports entered into the database within a certain number of days 
after the crash. According to NHTSA, states' use of these measures is 
voluntary, and states are encouraged to develop additional measures if 
needed. Establishing these measures was a step in NHTSA's overall plan 
for addressing our recommendation to ensure that traffic records 
assessments are complete and consistent.[Footnote 14] These measures 
are now available to help federal, state, and local officials monitor 
the quality of the data in state traffic records systems. The measures 
are currently being used to evaluate applications for Traffic Safety 
Information Systems Improvement grants and will also be incorporated 
into the associated assessments of data systems starting in fiscal 
year 2013. 

NHTSA Has Options to Improve the Safety Defect Recall Process: 

As we previously reported, a number of challenges affect recall 
completion rates, including identifying and motivating affected 
vehicle owners and providing better information to the public about 
recalls.[Footnote 15] Through our interviews with industry 
stakeholders, focus group participants, and NHTSA officials, we also 
identified several changes that NHTSA could implement to address these 
challenges, most of which would require limited resources. 

Modifying Safety Defect Notification Letters: 

Focus group participants we interviewed reported that the safety 
defect notification letters they reviewed did not always convey a 
clear description of the defect or the severity of the defect. Such 
confusion could affect owners' willingness to take their vehicles in 
for service and, ultimately, reduce the completion rates for certain 
recall campaigns. Though some information is already required by law 
and regulations, NHTSA has the ability to add requirements.[Footnote 
16] In particular, focus group participants indicated that they might 
be more likely to respond to a notification letter that specifically 
indicated the defect affecting their vehicle and conveyed the urgency 
of the safety recall. NHTSA officials told us that although they are 
working toward increasing recall completion rates, they believe that 
adding content to the notification letters could be distracting and 
that the fundamental information needed to convey the defect, the 
actions the owner should take, and the remedy program is covered by 
the current requirements. As we previously reported, while we agree 
that adding lengthy and complex information to the notification 
letters is unnecessary, our focus groups have shown that describing 
the defect more clearly and adding content such as the owner's vehicle 
identification number (VIN) may encourage vehicle owners to comply 
with defect notifications. 

Publicizing Existing Resources and Making VINs Available to Vehicle 
Owners and the Public: 

Our focus groups with vehicle owners also indicated that the public 
may not be aware of NHTSA's Web site, the primary method NHTSA uses to 
communicate information on recalls to consumers. In addition, a few 
industry associations told us that it would be useful to provide 
vehicle owners with the ability to search more easily for recall 
information using their VINs. As such, NHTSA has an opportunity to 
make vehicle owners and the public more aware of its Web site and to 
include more useful information. To do so, NHTSA could develop public 
service announcements and additional press releases or collaborate 
with auto manufacturers to develop methods of informing vehicle owners 
about available resources. NHTSA officials we spoke with agreed that 
additional efforts could be made to improve the public's awareness of 
[hyperlink, http://www.safercar.gov] and told us that the agency is 
currently redesigning its Web site to consolidate information so that 
consumers can more easily find information on vehicle 5-Star Safety 
Ratings and auto safety recall information.[Footnote 17] 

In addition, NHTSA officials told us they are interested in finding 
additional ways to improve vehicle owners' access to specific 
information about recalls, and to that end, they are in the process of 
purchasing software to facilitate a VIN-based search engine on NHTSA's 
Web site. However, the officials noted that developing a centralized 
VIN database would require significant additional resources to fully 
implement. In addition, the officials told us that VIN searches can 
present problems because vehicle owners may not enter VIN information 
correctly into a Web search. NHTSA officials are currently exploring 
ways to address this issue. 

Using Data More Effectively: 

Although NHTSA uses data it collects from manufacturers to track the 
average annual recall completion rate for all vehicle recall 
campaigns, NHTSA does not currently use its data to conduct aggregate 
analyses of completion rates across factors such as the manufacturer, 
component (such as steering), and vehicle type (such as car or pick-up 
truck). NHTSA also does not analyze completion rates based on the 
characteristics of defect notification letters, such as the format of 
the letter mailed to vehicle owners. Conducting these types of trend 
analyses could help NHTSA identify risk factors that might be 
associated with lower recall completion rates. In June 2011, we 
reported that our analysis of NHTSA's completion rate data for 
passenger vehicle recalls from 2000 through 2008 has shown that 
completion rates vary considerably across manufacturers and components 
and, to some extent, vehicle types.[Footnote 18] Additionally, NHTSA 
officials told us that other factors may also affect completion rates, 
including the owner's perception of the severity of the defect and the 
age of a vehicle at the time of the recall. 

NHTSA has the opportunity to analyze its data in ways that capture the 
underlying complexities and variation in the risk factors associated 
with lower completion rates. With that information, NHTSA could target 
new recall campaigns that include such risk factors and take 
additional steps to monitor those campaigns. NHTSA officials told us 
they are interested in improving the completion rates of their 
recalls. For example, NHTSA officials explained that they contacted a 
child safety seat manufacturer that had experienced higher rates of 
recall completion than other child safety seat manufacturers, in order 
to learn how that manufacturer was achieving a relatively higher 
completion rate. While this method--isolating outliers in the data, 
then following up with a particular manufacturer to investigate--is 
not a routine monitoring activity for NHTSA, it could use such an 
approach more systematically when it notices differences in recall 
rates in other areas identified in the data. NHTSA officials told us 
they were currently re-evaluating how they used their data and would 
consider ways that additional data analysis could help increase recall 
completion rates. 

Reauthorization Offers Opportunities to Improve Accountability and 
State Administration of Traffic Safety Grants and Enhance NHTSA's 
Recall Authority: 

In reauthorizing traffic safety grant programs, Congress has 
opportunities to improve accountability by linking state performance 
with traffic safety grant awards and to reduce administrative 
challenges for states by streamlining the application process for 
incentive grants and allowing more flexibility in the use of grant 
funds. Additionally, in reauthorizing vehicle safety programs, 
Congress has an opportunity to increase consumers' awareness of 
recalls and protect consumers from unknowingly purchasing defective 
vehicles by modifying NHTSA's vehicle recall authority to help ensure 
that purchasers of used cars are aware of any defects that have not 
been remedied following a recall. 

Accountability Mechanisms for Traffic Safety Grants: 

The comprehensive set of traffic safety performance measures published 
by NHTSA and GHSA in 2008 is an important step in moving toward a more 
performance-based, data-driven grant structure. We have reported that 
linking grant funding with states' progress in achieving goals--as 
tracked through performance measures--could help improve 
accountability for federal funds. However, while states are required 
to establish goals and related performance measures for high-priority 
program areas in annual safety plans, states' receipt of State and 
Community Highway traffic safety grant funds is not currently linked 
to progress toward those goals. In addition, criteria for continuing 
to receive traffic safety incentive grants are generally not tied to 
states' demonstrating safety improvements from the prior year. For 
example, while the Traffic Safety Information Systems Improvement 
grant requires that a state demonstrate progress in improving at least 
one system as a condition of continuing to receive the grant, the 
other incentive grants either include additional criteria that a state 
can meet to receive the grant or do not include any performance-based 
eligibility criteria at all. We have also noted that, given the scope 
of changes needed to transform federal transportation programs-- 
including moving toward a performance-based, data-driven approach for 
the programs--such transformation might need to be achieved on an 
incremental basis.[Footnote 19] In reauthorizing traffic safety grant 
programs, Congress will be faced with deciding whether to move further 
toward a performance-based, data-driven grant structure by linking a 
state's receipt of grant funds to its achieving progress toward safety 
goals. 

State Challenges in Administering Traffic Safety Incentive Grants: 

When we reviewed traffic safety incentive grants in 2008, state 
officials noted that NHTSA's traffic safety incentive grants are 
helping to improve traffic safety. However, these officials also 
identified challenges in applying for and using the grant funds. As we 
reported in 2008, each safety incentive grant has a separate 
application process, which has proved challenging for some states to 
administer, especially those with small safety offices.[Footnote 20] 
The five applications are each due within a 1-1/2 month period between 
June 15 and August 1. According to state highway safety officials, 
each application requires extensive amounts of staff time and 
resources. Although the application process is similar for each grant, 
having to complete it several times within a short time frame presents 
administrative challenges for states. Several states, including those 
with larger safety programs and more staff and resources than those 
with smaller safety programs, expressed concerns about the demands the 
application process placed on their staff. According to NHTSA, the 
application requirements reflect statutory requirements; therefore, 
changing the application requirements would require congressional 
action. 

Officials in some states also said they would prefer more flexibility 
in using safety incentive grant funds. For example, officials in one 
state said they would like to use Motorcyclist Safety grant funds, 
which can be used only for training and increasing other motorists' 
awareness of motorcyclists, to build new training sites or expand the 
size of current sites. However, the grant does not allow them to do 
so, although it does allow states to lease or purchase new sites. 
Officials in another state also noted that the Child Safety and 
Booster Seat grant they received for one year was much larger than 
expected; they would have preferred to use the additional funding for 
other areas, such as the state's traffic safety information systems. 
Again, because of limitations on the uses of funds established in 
SAFETEA-LU, such flexibility would require congressional action. 
However, allowing such flexibility could complicate NHTSA's ability to 
oversee states' use of grant funds and hold them accountable for using 
the federal funds to achieve high-priority safety goals. One way to 
address this complication would be to allow states to use excess funds 
from a grant for another traffic safety issue only if the state can 
demonstrate sufficient progress toward achieving goals in the grant 
area. 

Auto Recall Process: 

As we reported in June 2011, NHTSA cannot require used-car 
dealerships--which sold 11 million cars in 2009--to notify potential 
buyers of an outstanding safety defect, or require that the defect be 
remedied prior to sale. We recommended that the Secretary of 
Transportation direct the Administrator of NHTSA seek legislative 
authority to ensure that potential buyers of used cars are notified of 
any outstanding recalls prior to sale.[Footnote 21],[Footnote 22] 
NTHSA agreed to consider this recommendation. 

The upcoming reauthorization of NHTSA programs provides an opportunity 
to explore options to increase consumer awareness of recalls and 
protect consumers from unknowingly purchasing defective vehicles. 
Requiring dealerships to notify potential buyers of a defect could 
result in increased awareness of recalls, particularly among the group 
of vehicle owners that, according to manufacturers and third-party 
vendors, are the hardest to identify through postal mail--namely 
second and third owners of a vehicle. However, an industry association 
and the used-car dealerships we spoke with noted that it is 
challenging to identify vehicles with outstanding recalls because 
there is no requirement for used-car dealerships to be notified of a 
safety defect through the use of first-class mail and there is no 
single source of information on safety recalls--such as a centralized 
VIN database--that can be accessed to determine if a car in a 
dealership's possession has an outstanding recall. Although additional 
resources may be necessary for NHTSA to implement such a database, 
working with manufacturers, many of whom have already developed VIN 
search functions, could reduce NHTSA's burden. NHTSA officials agreed 
that notifying used-car dealerships of recalls is a challenge, and 
although the agency has not sought this authority, it is in the 
process of purchasing software to facilitate a VIN-based search engine 
on its Web site. In addition, NHTSA officials indicated that in May 
2011, the agency had identified several policy proposals to Congress 
on vehicle safety issues. One of these proposals would, with certain 
exceptions, prohibit used-car dealerships and rental companies from 
selling or leasing a vehicle subject to a recall before the repair has 
been made. 

Chairman Pryor, Ranking Member Toomey, and Members of the 
Subcommittee, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be happy 
to respond to any questions that you might have. 

Contact and Acknowledgment: 

For further information on this statement, please contact Susan 
Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or flemings@gao.gov. Contact points for our 
Congressional Relations and Public Affairs offices may be found on the 
last page of this statement. Individuals making key contributions to 
this testimony were Sara Vermillion, Assistant Director; Matthew Cook, 
Elizabeth Eisenstadt, Joah Iannotta, Raymond Sendejas, Matthew Voit, 
and Susan Zimmerman. 

[End of section] 

Related GAO Products: 

Auto Safety: NHTSA Has Options to Improve the Safety Defect Recall 
Process. GAO-11-603. Washington, D.C.: June 15, 2011. 

Teen Driver Safety: Additional Research Could Help States Strengthen 
Graduated Driver Licensing Systems. GAO-10-544. Washington, D.C.: May 
27, 2010. 

Traffic Safety Data: State Data System Quality Varies and Limited 
Resources and Coordination Can Inhibit Further Progress. GAO-10-454. 
Washington, D.C.: April 15, 2010. 

Highway Safety: Foresight Issues Challenge DOT's Efforts to Assess and 
Respond to New Technology-Based Trends. GAO-09-56. Washington, D.C.: 
October 3, 2009. 

Traffic Safety: NHTSA's Improved Oversight Could Identify 
Opportunities to Strengthen Management and Safety in Some States. GAO-
08-788. Washington, D.C.: July 14, 2008. 

Traffic Safety: Improved Reporting and Performance Measures Would 
Enhance Evaluation of High-Visibility Campaigns. GAO-08-477. 
Washington, D.C.: April 25, 2008. 

Surface Transportation: Restructured Federal Approach Needed for More 
Focused, Performance-Based, and Sustainable Programs. GAO-08-400. 
Washington, D.C.: March 6, 2008. 

Traffic Safety: Grants Generally Address Key Safety Issues, Despite 
State Eligibility and Management Difficulties. GAO-08-398. Washington, 
D.C.: March 14, 2008. 

Older Driver Safety: Knowledge Sharing Should Help States Prepare for 
Increase in Older Driver Population. GAO-07-413. Washington, D.C.: 
April 11, 2007. 

Highway Safety: Better Guidance Could Improve Oversight of State 
Highway Safety Programs. GAO-03-474. Washington, D.C.: April 21, 2003. 

[End of section] 

Footnotes: 

[1] Pub. L. No. 109-59, 119 Stat. 1144 (2005). 

[2] Additional spending has been authorized since 2009. The most 
recent extension expires September 30, 2011. Continuing Appropriations 
Act, 2011, Pub. L. No. 111-242, 124 Stat. 2607 (2010) as amended. 

[3] The Federal Highway Administration is responsible for addressing 
the third type of factor that contributes to crashes--roadway 
environment. 

[4] GAO, Highway Safety: Better Guidance Could Improve Oversight of 
State Highway Safety Programs, [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-03-474] (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 21, 
2003). 

[5] Franchised dealerships are businesses that have franchise 
agreements with an auto manufacturer to sell or lease new vehicles it 
manufactures. 

[6] [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-03-474]. 

[7] 23 U.S.C. § 412(a). 

[8] GAO, Traffic Safety: NHTSA's Improved Oversight Could Identify 
Opportunities to Strengthen Management and Safety in Some States, 
[hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-08-788] (Washington, D.C.: 
July 14, 2008). 

[9] GAO, Surface Transportation: Restructured Federal Approach Needed 
for More Focused, Performance-Based, and Sustainable Programs, 
[hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-08-400] (Washington, D.C.: 
Mar. 6, 2008). 

[10] GAO, Traffic Safety: Improved Reporting and Performance Measures 
Would Enhance Evaluation of High-Visibility Campaigns, [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-08-477] (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 25, 
2008). 

[11] 23 CFR 1200.10(a)(1). 

[12] GAO, Traffic Safety Data: State Data System Quality Varies and 
Limited Resources and Coordination Can Inhibit Further Progress, 
[hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-454] (Washington, D.C.: 
Apr. 15, 2010). 

[13] NHTSA technical teams or contractors conduct these assessments 
for states at least once every 5 years. 

[14] In addition to establishing the performance measures, NHTSA 
recently finished a study that examined completed traffic records 
assessments and identified State concerns with the assessments and 
deficiencies in the technical aspects of the States traffic records 
assessment process. NHTSA has begun to update the Traffic Records 
Assessment procedures to incorporate recommendations from the study of 
assessments and address all performance measures across all State 
traffic safety data systems. 

[15] GAO, Auto Safety: NHTSA Has Options to Improve the Safety Defect 
Recall Process, [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-603] 
(Washington, D.C.: June 15, 2011). 

[16] NHTSA requires defect notification letters to have (1) a notation 
on the envelope that include the words "SAFETY," "RECALL," and 
"NOTICE" in all capital letters and in a font different from the 
address information; (2) a clear description of the defect; (3) an 
evaluation of the risk to vehicle safety related to the defect; and 
(4) a statement of measures to be taken to remedy the defect. 49 
C.F.R. § 577.5. 

[17] NHTSA's 5-Star Safety Ratings measure the crashworthiness and 
rollover safety of vehicles. Five stars indicate the highest rating, 
one star indicates the lowest. 

[18] See [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-603] for 
additional information on our methodology. 

[19] [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-08-400]. 

[20] GAO, Traffic Safety: Grants Generally Address Key Safety Issues, 
Despite State Eligibility and Management Difficulties, [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-08-398] (Washington D.C.: Mar. 14, 
2008). 

[21] Franchised dealerships may sell or lease a new motor vehicle only 
if the defect has been remedied before delivery of the motor vehicle 
under the sale or lease. 49 U.S.C. § 30120. 

[22] [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-603]. 

[End of section] 

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