While the federal government is once again open, at least for the time being, the five-week shutdown had some serious impacts that could last far into the future. Besides the drastic effect that the shutdown had on the lives of federal workers and contractors, it also impacted the important regulatory work of federal agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of our food and other products.
Take the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). That department was one of a dozen that received no money during the 35-day shutdown. NHTSA investigates safety complaints about vehicles and enforces recalls by automakers. However, there were no automotive recalls last month while NHTSA’s 300-plus employees were furloughed.
Auto safety advocates point to two South Korean automakers whose potentially dangerous vehicles may have remained on the road thanks to the shutdown — Hyundai and Kia. The two share a parent company.
Last summer, NHTSA began investigating complaints that the engines in some of these cars could catch fire. Safety groups have urged the manufacturers to recall about 3 million vehicles because of this risk. So far, only about 168,000 have been recalled.
The head of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit group, says that during the shutdown “[t]here was no one at NHTSA to say ‘What are you doing? That’s not enough.’….NHTSA was still receiving complaints, but there was no one there to review them.” He notes that during a shutdown, “manufacturers have carte blanche to decide what they’re going to do, because there’s no cop on the beat.”
A spokesperson for Hyundai claims that despite the shutdown, the company communicated with customers regarding the problems identified in its vehicles. He says that the company’s “actions during the shutdown should be commended….We had no idea how long the shutdown was going to last and felt it was clearly in the best interest of our customers to get to them as quickly as possible.”
Americans have come to rely on the government to help protect us from defective and dangerous products. However, the makers and sellers of those products have an obligation to consumers not to allow them on the market. When people suffer harm because of an unsafe or contaminated product, they can and should determine what their legal options are for holding the appropriate companies accountable.