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Do fewer investigations mean car defects are going unfixed?

Many Americans depend on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to be the "cop on the beat," as one safety advocate put it. They count on it to help ensure that car manufacturers take action to fix vehicle defects and to notify consumers about them.

However, the federal agency seems to have gotten less aggressive recently in pursuing investigations of reported problems. Last year, NHTSA opened just 13 investigations. That's a steep drop from 204 back in 1989. Further, it hasn't levied a civil penalty against a vehicle manufacturer since 2015. The significant drop in investigations actually started in 2016, when just 21 were initiated. In the decade prior to that, NHTSA averaged 61 new investigations each year.

The agency claims that fewer investigations are needed because auto makers are communicating better with one another and catching problems before the cars go to market. However, auto safety advocates are expressing concern that vehicles with dangerous defects may be staying on the roads. As one official with Consumers Union notes, "Without an agency making clear they will bring the hammer down, I think you're going to see the industry slack off. You're going to see mistakes."

There are also concerns that in the business-friendly Trump administration, regulators may be too easy on those they're supposed to be monitoring. One law professor notes that there tend to be fewer regulatory investigations and enforcement actions in general under conservative presidents. However, she says the recent drop is "really unprecedented."

With the large recalls of the past decade involving General Motors and Toyota vehicles and Takata airbags that were precipitated by numerous injuries and deaths, consumer advocates argue that strong oversight of the auto industry remains crucial. They also point to the rise in self-driving vehicles, which present a host of other potential safety issues.

Even if NHTSA isn't pursuing vehicle defects as vigorously as it once was, car manufacturers still issue recalls, sometimes out of an abundance of caution, when they learn about an issue. Aside from being the right thing to do, this can save them considerable costs in civil judgments and settlements, and damage to their reputation. However, if you or a loved one is injured or worse because of a defective vehicle, it's wise to explore your legal options for obtaining the compensation you need and holding companies responsible when they place unsafe vehicles on the road.

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