2014 set the record for the year with the most automotive recalls of all time. It was a serious wakeup call for a number of manufacturers (not to mention suppliers), but also for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the governmental body that investigates the safety issues. So great was the extent of these recalls that the NHTSA has done a restructuring of how it investigates potential safety issues. The need to look into this issue was evident before 2014 was even over, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx requested a review midway through the year.

The findings, and the NHTSA’s plans for addressing new safety concerns, have been published in a report titled “NHTSA’s Path Forward.” The main thrust of the report is that the NHTSA will be forming a new panel of experts, known as the Safety Systems Team (SST), made up of people from outside the agency. They will also be implementing a Risk Control Innovations Program to streamline response time when a safety concern is identified. The report also details new data-mining techniques, used to insure that new problems are identified as quickly as possible.

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Why it matters

A second report was also published, known as the “Workforce Assessment: The Future of NHTSA’s Defects Investigation.” This report was started in 2011, and it addresses issues that persisted during that year. Essentially, this report was carried out to answer the question of whether the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) had the necessary manpower and funding to carry out its investigations. The result is that the ODI will be getting a doubling of its staff and a tripling of its funding. After all, the potential for a flood of new defects is apparently still a very real concern.

Press Release

Expert panel to help implement improvements identified in ’Path Forward’ report; internal groups to tackle safety risks

WASHINGTON – U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today released two internal reports from the Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that outline the changes NHTSA has adopted in the wake of the General Motors (GM) ignition switch recall and how the agency proposes to strengthen its defect investigation workforce

Secretary Foxx also announced the formation of a three-person Safety Systems Team (SST) of outside experts who will spend the next year advising NHTSA on implementation of the changes outlined in the report. At the same time, NHTSA launched a new, internal Risk Control Innovations Program, which will bring together NHTSA staff from across the agency to address emerging highway safety risks that cut across the agency’s enforcement, vehicle safety and behavioral safety efforts.

"NHTSA has identified improvements, some already in progress and some we plan to make, to better investigate, identify and remedy defects that threaten public safety," said Secretary Anthony Foxx. "With the SST, we are enlisting three of the most experienced and knowledgeable safety professionals in the world to help us implement these changes. And with the Risk Control Innovations Program, we are breaking down stovepipes and reaching into offices from across NHTSA to address safety risks."

NHTSA’s Safety Systems Team (SST) will guide and validate strategy, tactics, and actions to enhance the agency’s effectiveness. The team will include:

Dr. Joseph Kolly, Ph.D., director of the Office of Research and Engineering at the National Transportation Safety Board, who is detailed to NHTSA for the remainder of 2015;

Dr. J. Victor Lebacqz, Ph.D., former associate administrator for aeronautics research at NASA;

Dr. James P. Bagian, M.D., director of the Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety at the University of Michigan, where he is a professor at the medical and engineering schools; he is also a former NASA astronaut and veteran of two space shuttle missions.

The Risk Control Innovations Program announced today will use multi-disciplinary teams from across NHTSA to address safety risks or problems that fall outside the agency’s specialized programs and to develop individualized solutions.

"Our obligation to save lives and prevent injuries must include sober self-examination, and when we find weaknesses, we have to fix them," NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said. "These reports outline how NHTSA is already improving its systems for identifying and addressing vehicle safety defects, and offers options for building the workforce it needs to meet its obligations to the traveling public."

One report released today, "NHTSA’s Path Forward," provides the results of a year-long due-diligence review Secretary Foxx requested in the wake of the GM ignition switch investigation. Based on weaknesses identified in the review, the report outlines changes to improve the agency’s ability to hold manufacturers accountable collecting information more efficiently and auditing carmakers and their suppliers; expanding NHTSA’s expertise on new and emerging technologies; implementing a systems safety approach designed to encourage questioning of assumptions; implementing new and improved data mining techniques; improving control of the investigative process; and strengthening internal and external communications.

The second report, "Workforce Assessment: The Future of NHTSA’s Defects Investigations," has its origins in a 2011 recommendation by the Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) that the agency assess whether the Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) had the staff numbers and expertise required to carry out its mission. The report defines the need for short-term resource increases, as illustrated by President’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, and provides a plan for strategic growth of the agency’s capabilities. The assessment informed the budget request, which would roughly triple funding and double staffing for ODI. The report also outlines a new paradigm for its investigation workforce, based on an examination of workforce models at other safety agencies.

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