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DETROIT — 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 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 Web site. Petitions are formal requests for investigations, with evidence of a problem in many vehicles.
Often petitions are a last resort for drivers frustrated by intransigent automakers. And even if an investigation is opened, it can take months or years before a recall is announced.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center For Auto Safety, a nonprofit founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, petitioned in November, 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.
The agency’s probe found 51 fire deaths as of June, when a recall was finally announced. Mr. Ditlow says that since the petition was filed, at least 31 people died in fiery rear crashes involving the SUVs.
Chrysler, the maker of Jeeps, maintains the SUVs perform no worse than comparable vehicles. It has agreed to install trailer hitches to protect the tanks in low-speed crashes.
Realistically, the agency may need more than 120 days for complex petitions, says former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook.
Legislators should extend the deadlines and take funding from the agency or the administrator’s salary if they aren’t met, she says.
During recent hearings into a GM recall, some lawmakers suggested the agency’s staff and budget are too small to monitor the 238 million cars and trucks on the road today.