Government shutdown puts NHTSA car safety tests on hold

The ongoing government shutdown has forced the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to furlough the team that investigates vehicle defects. The government shutdown also means that there's no one at NHTSA working on new regulations, like the ones that will set guidelines for event data recorders and backup cameras.

LM Otero/AP/File
Traffic stacks up on a highway in Dallas. Because of the government shutdown, NHTSA has furloughed the team that investigates vehicle defects.

Well into week two of the federal government shutdown, we're noticing some inconsistencies in what's truly been shut down and what's still up and running.

In the latter category: the military, medical facilities for veterans, and gyms for U.S. Senators and Representatives (but sadly, not their staffers).

In the former: national parks, chunks of NASA, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Or at least the parts of NHTSA that have to do with safety.

According to Detroit News, NHTSA has furloughed the team that investigates vehicle defects. In fact, it's had to send 333 of its 597 workers home since the shutdown began on October 1. 

Now, when complaints come in, there's no one around to read and evaluate them. When cars burst into flames, there's no one to give them the once-over. There's also no one on hand to investigate safety problems like the ones plaguing older models of the Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokee. And when automakers issue recalls, NHTSA can't publicize them on its massive database for consumers.

The shutdown also means that there's no one at NHTSA working on new regulations, like the ones that will set guidelines for event data recorders and backup cameras. And of course, there's no one running crash tests. 

Current NHTSA head David Strickland hasn't commented much on the shutdown, but former administrator Joan Claybrook has publicly called it "outrageous". And a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has said that a prolonged shutdown could cause difficulties for car companies. For example, with much of the EPA furloughed, the agency can't approve fuel economy ratings for new vehicles. 

Perhaps in response to complaints like these, one member of Congress is trying to get NHTSA back up and running: Representative Lee "Nice House" Terry (R-NE), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce panel. Terry has drafted two bills that provide temporary funding for parts of NHTSA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Whether Terry can convince his colleagues to act on that legislation remains to be seen. 

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