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At one point in time, vehicles were not safe. Prior to 1970, no official governing body had any say in the matters of vehicle safety, and cars were essentially steel cages on wheels. Leading up to 1970, the average fatalities per 100,000 people due to vehicle related deaths was almost 26, or roughly 75,000 people per year in the United States alone. Today, that number sits at roughly 10 deaths per 100,000, or 30,000 people a year. The introduction of the NHTSA has led to the decline in vehicle deaths over the years, but recent revelations seem to paint a different story.

What Is The NHTSA?

The NHTSA is a busy division of the United States Government. Tasked with enforcing motor vehicle safety standards, theft resistance, fuel economy, importation, controlling the VIN (vehicle identification number) system, creating and developing crash test dummies, and providing the cost of vehicle insurance to insurance companies. If all that seems like a lot for one company to handle, it is, and you’ll shortly find out why.

The most common interaction you will have with the NHTSA is in their starred safety rating system. In this system, vehicles are crashed in a number of scenarios and are given a rating from one to five stars depending on how likely the driver and passengers would be to sustain damage. Automakers frequently display their safety ratings as a selling point in their vehicles, claiming to have some of the safest vehicles on the road. What if those stars meant nothing and your vehicle was just as dangerous as ever? Unfortunately, that may be the case.

Who Watches The Watchmen

The NHTSA has come out stating that they cannot test every single vehicle, but all cars must still conform to safety standards. This means that while not every car will be able to proudly display its 5-star safety rating, it will still meet all the in place requirements to be acceptable on the roads.

In recent months, GM has come under fire for their faulty ignition switches. In these cases, ignitions could become deactivated while operating the vehicle, causing a loss of power and a failure of vehicle safety systems, such as locking seat-belts and airbags. The faulty ignition switches have already been confirmed responsible for over 100 deaths, with more being investigated and many going unreported.

The ignition switches in GM vehicles were not an oversight error. In a recent audit of the NHTSA, it is revealed that the first complaints started arriving as early as 2003. Two years later, the NHTSA begins looking into a particular crash involving a Chevy Cobalt, but no action of any kind is taken. When GM issued their recalls in 2014, the NHTSA had just finished preparing reports that stated: “no actionable trend indicated” and “no action at this time” based on recent tests. This was the same issue that would be revealed to have claimed over 100 lives.

This is the biggest example of failure on the NHTSA’s part, but it’s not the only one. As their system is set up, it’s essentially on the manufacturer to report any problems, and then have the NHTSA investigate. In one case, it was discovered that a manufacturer had failed to report over 1700 instances of airbag-related injuries and deaths. The procedure the NHTSA implemented? To tell the manufacturer to write a report on how to fix the issue, then not follow up. One manufacturer had issues with their cars catching fire, and it was reported to the NHTSA as “a strange odor”.

In another example, a popular recreation vehicle manufacturer neglected to report the potential for their vehicles to become a fatal safety hazard due to a software error. This lack of reporting went on for over a decade before the NHTSA finally checked in, and then did nothing further.

In other cases, some reports and information simply were never opened, due to the reports being saved in a different version of software than what reviewers had. Not complicated, advanced software either. Things like word documents weren’t reviewed because employees didn’t know how to open them.

When assessing the employees of the organization, many people in charge of establishing trends have no actual training in statistics. For example, an average of 10 complaints per month would be a baseline, so that if in one month there were 200 complaints, an investigation would be warranted. Without any training, there wasn’t even methods in place by the NHTSA to know what the baseline average complaints per month were, let alone how to compare a sudden jump in complaints and relate it to a potential hazard. Furthering this, many of the researchers had no training in automotive engineering. In one reported instance, faulty brakes were tested for ice performance by placing some brakes in a freezer.

What Can Be Done

The NHTSA is incompetent at best and outright fatal at worst. Unfortunately, this is still the governing body for all vehicle safety issues in North America. It’s hard to get an outside opinion on your vehicle’s safety when the governing authority has been shown to be so inept at doing so. The NHTSA is not the only group testing vehicles. Other companies, like the IIHS (insurance institute for highway safety) also perform crash tests on vehicles. Unlike the government funded NHTSA, the IIHS is privately funded, non-profit organization that is funded by automotive insurance companies to provide accurate data and recommendations. Checking with IIHS ratings and scores may be your best bet, as NHTSA rating can no longer be taken at face value. On a more positive note, the IIHS has an amazing youtube channel, where they upload many of their crash tests in HD for you to witness. Remember to drive safely and to not rely too much on “safety features” like lane departure warnings or blind spot monitoring, at least until the NHTSA has been cleaned up and more accurate vehicle information can be provided. With any luck, the entire system will be overhauled soon.

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