WASHINGTON (AP) _ Potential safety problems in the vehicles on American roadways are not always being identified by the federal agency responsible for investigating them, a Transportation Department audit says.
The department's inspector general found the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's database of consumer complaints includes inaccurate and incomplete information.
In some cases, the staff of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation recommended an investigation after receiving what it considered serious complaints, but no investigation was opened, according to the report, which was distributed to some members of Congress and obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
The audit recommends NHTSA overhaul the way it collects and evaluates complaints about potentially dangerous vehicles and establish a peer review panel to ensure high priority cases are investigated.
In a response included in the audit, NHTSA defended its record, noting the number of vehicle recalls has increased steadily in the past decade and that very few serious defects have escaped its attention. Still, it agreed to develop new defect analysis procedures.
There are no set guidelines for when NHTSA must open an investigation. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis and factors include the number and seriousness of the complaints. However, the report found inconsistencies in the process, including several cases where deaths did not lead to probes.
NHTSA largely relies on automobile manufacturers and consumer complaints to uncover possible safety defects. Vehicle owners who have experienced a problem can report it to NHTSA through a hot line or on its Web site.
Vehicle manufacturers have not been required to turn over consumer complaints to NHTSA. Critics say that means NHTSA often finds out about a problem long after a manufacturer.
That is supposed to change. Spurred by the investigation into defective Firestone tires, Congress passed a law in 2000 requiring manufacturers to start forwarding to NHTSA information about any serious injuries or deaths related to their products and turn over claims and warranty data.
The reporting system is supposed to be in place this fall, but the report found NHTSA has done a poor job of planning implementation and ``is significantly at risk of not meeting quality, cost and schedule goals.''
The inspector general's audit was requested by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in September 2000, when Congress started looking into the Firestone tires.
Testimony to lawmakers revealed NHTSA did not begin looking at the tires until May 2000, months after Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. began receiving complaints about sudden blowouts and other serious problems.
``The report verified our suspicion that NHTSA's process for reviewing data was fundamentally flawed,'' said Ken Johnson, spokesman for House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., who led the Firestone investigation.
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator who now heads the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said Congress does not give NHTSA enough money to do its job, but that even with existing funds more can be done.
``A lot of sources of data which are relatively inexpensive to acquire are sitting there waiting to be plucked and the agency has ignored them,'' she said.
NHTSA hot line: 1-888-327-4236.