Motor Vehicle Safety:

NHTSA's Ability to Detect and Recall Defective Replacement Crash Parts Is Limited

GAO-01-225: Published: Jan 31, 2001. Publicly Released: Feb 14, 2001.

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Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has the authority to regulate aftermarket crash parts, the agency has not developed safety standards for them because it has not determined that any aftermarket crash parts contain safety-related defects. NHTSA has more limited authority to regulate the use of recycled air bags. NHTSA could elect to develop safety standards for occupant restraint systems under the used vehicle provision of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. NHTSA has not developed such standards because it has not identified significant problems with occupant restraint systems that could be addressed by state motor vehicle inspection programs. The limitations of NHTSA's complaint system may hamper NHTSA's ability to detect safety-related trends through broad key-word searches of its complaint database and make it unlikely that NHTSA can identify all unsafe parts. In addition, the ability to recall unsafe aftermarket crash parts is limited because some parts are not stamped with the manufacturer's name and there is no trail leading from the manufacturer to the ultimate user of the part. Two studies on the safety of recycled airbags concluded that they can be a potentially safe, economical alternative to new airbags as long as they are undamaged and properly handled and installed. However, the failure of some flood-damaged airbags to deploy correctly also demonstrates the potential for serious safety consequences.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act (TREAD) required NHTSA to conduct a comprehensive review of all standards, criteria, procedures, and methods, including the data management and analysis systems it uses, to open a defect or noncompliance investigation. The agency plans to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the fall of 2001 and to issue a final rule during 2002. The agency is addressing the concerns raised by GAO in its efforts to comply with the law.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as part of the legislatively required review, to identify additional sources of information to include in the agency's complaint database. This might include obtaining additional data from manufacturers and insurance companies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is currently working with the Volpe Center to redesign the internet-based user interface that allows consumer interaction with the agency's defects database. The goal of the redesign is to simplify the interface and to make it more useful for users to conduct research and inquiries. March 25 update: To increase consumer awareness of its complaint reporting system, NHTSA continues to conduct an extensive advertising campaign to promote the DOT Auto Safety Hotline and the NHTSA web site. This includes public service announcements that are periodically distributed to 6,500 radio stations, articles that are sent to 10,000 daily and weekly newspapers, backlit dioramas that are displayed in major airports throughout the country, and liaison with transit companies to provide messages to display on buses, trains, and in rail and subway stations. Also, direct mail is sent to organizations asking them to (1) distribute complimentary literature provided by NHTSA, (2) publicize a link to the NHTSA web site, (3) place articles in their newsletter or magazine, (4) send broadcast e-mail to their employees, and (5) display one of its exhibits in their office or at an event that they sponsor. NHTSA is currently planning a nationwide program to have in place more than 1,000 highway billboards by the end of this fiscal year. NHTSA works with schools, corporations, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and other organizations throughout the country to set up outreach programs. This effort is facilitated in part by the hotline web site that NHTSA developed for consumers to use to report vehicle, child safety seat, and tire defects. NHTSA promotes both its web site and its toll free number through its literature and its public service messages. Information about the web site is periodically listed with the major Internet search engines. In addition to reporting safety defects, individuals and organizations can order literature online that enables them to conduct an outreach program on NHTSA's behalf. The web site currently receives more than 2,000 visitors per day. NHTSA personnel attend conferences to target groups such as fleet mangers, nurses, DMVs, police, and repair shop owners. At these conferences the hotline exhibit is displayed and literature is distributed both to inform participants about the complaint reporting system and to encourage them to set up outreach programs of their own to spread NHTSA's message. NHTSA has recently made changes to the hotline telephone system to ensure that consumers who call to report a safety defect receive expedited service by bypassing the menu system and are sent directly to an operator. Additionally, the hotline is implementing increased quality control measures to ensure that callers receive a high level of service.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as part of the legislatively required review, to heighten consumers' awareness of NHTSA's complaint reporting system with the goal of increasing consumers' participation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is currently reviewing its policies regarding the use of recycled airbags. GAO contacted the Associate Administrator for Rulemaking (AARM) to discuss the status of the Agency's response to this recommendation. The AARM stated that it was reviewing the most appropriate way to notify consumers that they should avoid using recycled airbags. However, when GAO informed the AARM that at least two companies were inspecting and certifying recycled airbags, the AARM decided to conduct further research before adopting an official agency position. GAO will continue to monitor the agency's progress. Update March 25: NHTSA's investigation on the safety of recycled air bag systems has examined three major categories of recycled air bag systems: (1) false air bag systems, (2) recertified OEM air bag systems, and (3) other OEM recycled air bag systems that are offered by a repair shop without a formal certification process. NHTSA has also been following the efforts of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) and Airbag Testing Technology, Inc. (ATTI) to establish guidelines and procedures for re-certification of air bag modules. NHTSA is now reviewing both the ICBC and ATTI inspection procedures and plans to meet with the insurance industry, service organizations, and Automotive Occupants Restraints Council to determine how best to provide appropriate information to repair shops, insurers, state legislatures, and consumers. NHTSA hopes to complete it this summer. July 25, 2005 update: NHTSA is now reviewing both the ICBC and ATTI inspection procedures and plans to meet with the insurance industry, service organizations, and Automotive Occupants Restraints Council to determine how best to provide appropriate information to repair shops, insurers, state legislatures and consumers. In July 2005, NHTSA monitored the efforts of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) and a private testing firm called the Airbag Testing Technology, Inc. (ATTI) to establish guidelines and procedures for re-certification of air bag modules. In June 2005, NHTSA met with the Automotive Service Organization (ASA), which represents body shops. That group indicated that insurers are not limiting the ability to use only new air bags, but there is still a possibility that recycled air bags will be used. NHTSA knows of no current problems in connection with the use of salvaged air bags. This review of the safety of recycled airbags can be directly attributed to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as part of the legislatively required review, to investigate the safety of using recycled airbag systems, particularly those taken from flood-damaged vehicles, and determine if any action is appropriate concerning their use.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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