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Focus on safety office within NHTSA: found wanting

Given troubling testimony from a top government transportation official last year concerning the performance of a federal office tasked with collecting, reviewing and acting upon vehicle-related safety complaints, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx directed further action. Specifically, he asked that official -- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III -- to take a microscopic look at the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigations and report back.

Scovel did just that, states a media report on the ODI, offering testimony before the U.S. Senate Transportation Committee earlier this summer.

What he had to say was far from complimentary. In fact, his expressed views revealed a deep concern that the ODI is performing in a substandard manner, with its flawed performance having clear downside implications for the identification of vehicle safety problems and remedial actions to fix them.

What reportedly led to Foxx's review order of the ODI was an unacceptably late response by General Motors in issuing a safety recall to attend to deadly ignition switches in select vehicles. The auto manufacturer was tardy in acting, notes the above-cited report, "despite the ODI having received early warning and consumer complaints" about the dangerous issue.

Scovel's report leveled some sharp criticisms at the ODI, pointing to a clear need for change. He stated that the office lacks clear policies and procedures for collecting and acting upon consumers' safety complaints and that it does not sufficiently verify safety-related information forthcoming from automobile manufacturers.

The inspector general further cited the need for the office to enhance staff training to avoid "significant safety concerns being overlooked."

The GM ignition-switch defect was tied to scores of fatalities and approximately 250 non-fatal injuries.

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