Politics & Government

Agency missteps leave motorists in dark on air-bag defects

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration botched its effort to inform the public about a potentially lethal air-bag defect, directing 8 million consumers to an inoperable website and leaving millions of others unsure as to whether their cars were even at risk.

More than 48 hours after telling motorists of the urgent need to check the government-run safercar.gov for information, the search function on the website remained down. The effects of the outage were compounded when NHTSA had to correct a consumer advisory to show some vehicles originally listed weren’t at risk, while about 3 million cars not mentioned were.

For Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the agency who now advocates for consumer safety, it was a “total meltdown.” The inability of NHTSA to manage such a public campaign shows congressional criticism earlier this year over how it handled the General Motors Co. ignition-switch recall hasn’t gotten the agency in good working order.

“It’s a royal embarrassment,” Claybrook said. “It totally undermines trust in the agency.”

The website troubles aren’t attributable to increased traffic or hacking, the agency said in a statement Wednesday night. The vehicle recall lookup tool remains “temporarily unavailable,” the agency said, although a workaround involving links to automaker websites has been setup at www.safercar.gov/vinlookup.

“We greatly regret that the information provided in our initial safety advisory was inaccurate and that we have experienced significant problems with our website,” NHTSA’s deputy administrator, David Friedman, said in the statement.

The vehicle-lookup system had been operating properly under high-traffic situations, according to the agency’s statement. Preliminary indications point to a recent software change that affects how the system interacts with the Internet. The agency said it’s working with vendors to diagnose and solve the problem.

NHTSA’s statement left unanswered questions about why its initial advisory was wrong and when all of the website’s functions will be restored. Brian Farber, the U.S. Transportation Department’s chief spokesman, didn’t have an explanation, either.

The agency’s missteps came as the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the agency for a briefing about the air bag recalls, which involve components supplied by Takata Corp. and have been linked to four deaths.

Safety regulators are investigating reports that the air bags can inflate with excessive force, propelling metal fragments toward vehicle occupants. Honda Motor Co. alone has recalled 6 million vehicles globally since 2008 because of the flaw.

Will Lawrence, a San Carlos, California, owner of a 2005 Honda Pilot, said he became concerned after hearing about the possibility of death by shrapnel. He was locked out of the safercar.gov website on Oct. 20. He tried different computers and got the same message that NHTSA’s vehicle-number lookup tool couldn’t be opened. He tried to send the agency a note, but the site wouldn’t accept his submission.

“It is simply inconceivable that NHTSA would direct people to its website to check on their vehicles and not be prepared for the resulting traffic,” Lawrence said in an e-mail. “NHTSA could at least give people an explanation of the problems and tell them when to expect them to be resolved.”

About 7.8 million people in the U.S. are being notified about the defect, as GM joined Toyota in warning people not to sit in front passenger seats until repairs can be made. The recalls affect at least 10 carmakers in the the United States.

The first list issued by NHTSA on Oct. 20 said only 4.74 million cars in the U.S. were affected from six automakers: GM, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda and BMW.

Owners of cars made by Ford, Chrysler and Subaru could rest easy, it seemed. By the next day, those three automakers, comprising 17 different models, were on the recall list. So were two models made by Mitsubishi.

The search function on safercar.gov began experiencing “intermittent network issues” shortly after the first advisory went out. As of of 5:44 p.m. in Washington Wednesday, it was still down and the agency replaced its search function with links directing consumers to websites of individual automakers, whose vehicle lookup functions were working.

Functions for searching other vehicle recalls and consumer complaints on any potential safety issue still weren’t working.

The agency’s troubles also were compounded by telling some people their cars were at risk, even though they weren’t.

NHTSA initially warned 133,221 GM consumers that they should check their vehicles for the potentially deadly air-bag defect. That warning covered 14 models, including the popular Chevrolet Trailblazer sport-utility vehicle and Impala sedan.

The advisory Oct. 21 dropped all 14 models. Instead, two new models were listed: the Pontiac Vibe and the Saab 9-2X. The agency said it no longer knew how many GM vehicles were covered.

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