April 26, 2016
Many automakers have decided to sell cars with massive defects (like steering wheel grenades), because in the end, they come out on top (see: GM ignitions switch scandal). However, it has been abundantly obvious for years; if left to the automakers; ubiquitous changes will not be implemented until it is absolutely necessary. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) was instituted for precisely that reason. Tens of 1000s of Americans were dying on US roads every year, because before the NHTSA (and precursor programs), there was a scandalous lack of safety guidelines. The most significant push for driving safety was during the 50s and 60s (technically before the NHTSA). It was during that time that America’s expansive National Highway system was implemented, which made driving safer per se. At the time the tax rate was 90 percent, and a healthy portion of that eventually went to the NHTSA (via National Highway Safety Bureau). As time marched along, the NHTSA’s and EPA’s funding faltered, and scandals increased. The agencies were receiving less and less in federal compensation every year, so the total numbers of workers were being reduced accordingly. The government agencies instituted to protect citizens; became an ironic shell of their former selves. Without direct funding, preliminary intervention, is out of the question. Even if they were able to succeed once with preemptive action, it would be to both the detriment of themselves and those affected by a future scandal. If the agencies did actually stop a wrongdoer before their misdeed, there would be a two pronged negative effect. First, they would be broke for the rest of the year, due to both the price if the investigation and the lack of settlement money. However, beyond financial gains, there is a priceless compensation in the form of publicity. If the NHTSA prevents a recall, no one would know except the agency and the automaker. But, if there is a court case, the entire American populace has the potential to notice if nothing else. The crippled ability to be proactive, stems from compensation issues. With funding dwindling, the agencies had to adapt creative techniques to receive compensation. While averting scandals before they become a problem is preferable for the citizens; the same is not true for the NHTSA or the EPA. There is absolutely no incentive for the NHTSA, EPA, or the FTC to prevent an automotive scandal from happening. If any of those agencies were to catch an automaker before they did anything wrong, they would miss out on making money they need to even exist. Therefore, their M.O. (by necessity, not choice) became to: let issues fester until a scandal comes to light; then sue for damages. That way at least some of that money goes back to the agencies that were supposed to prevent the problem. Sadly, it seems the Fight Club quote on recalls (and other automotive scandals) rings truer than anyone would like. I am not passing blame onto anyone or agency in particular; this is merely a critique of the (inevitable) result; of a system with misplaced or lacking incentives.