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U.S. highway traffic safety agency moves slowly on investigation requests

By TOM KRISHER, Associated Press Published: August 12, 2014
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— People are waiting longer than they should for an answer when they petition the government to open an investigation into what could be serious safety problems.

The Associated Press reviewed all 15 petitions filed by drivers with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since 2010 and found the agency missed the legal deadline to grant or deny the requests 12 times. One petition from 2012 has yet to be resolved.

A 1974 law passed to make the agency move faster requires a decision within four months of receiving a petition. But even though the agency has fined automakers such as General Motors and Toyota millions for missing deadlines to disclose safety issues, there is no penalty when it’s tardy itself.

NHTSA concedes it has missed the deadlines but says it often must ask petitioners for more data to complete its analysis. Still, in eight petitions reviewed by the AP, it took more than a year to open an investigation or close the case.

Safety advocates say a delay that long can put lives at risk. And given the recent criticism of the agency for its role in GM’s delayed recall of cars with defective ignition switches, these advocates question whether it is functioning well enough to protect the public.

“Everything is just really slow,” says Matt Oliver, executive director of the North Carolina Consumers Council, which petitioned the government in February 2012 on behalf of drivers seeking an investigation of Nissan truck transmission failures. It has yet to get a decision. “You have to ask is everything going as efficiently as it can?”

Car owners have two ways to ask safety regulators for action. They can file a complaint, or submit a petition. A complaint has information about a single incident and usually is filed via the agency’s website. Petitions are formal requests for investigations, with evidence of a problem in vehicles.

Often petitions are a last resort for drivers frustrated by intransigent automakers. Many drivers seek help from safety advocates to complete the petition. And even if an investigation is opened, it can take months or years before a recall is announced.

Many died as request stalled

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center For Auto Safety, a nonprofit founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, petitioned in November of 2009 for an investigation into fires in Jeep SUVs with gas tanks behind the rear axle. Despite reports of 12 fires, nine injuries and one death at the time, it took the agency more than nine months to grant the petition and open a formal investigation — five months after the legal deadline.

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