By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. auto safety watchdog is racked by internal problems that have prevented the agency from acting to protect the public from deadly auto defects, including faulty GM ignition switches, according to federal investigators.
An official U.S. Department of Transportation report, seen by Reuters, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lacks the data needed to identify safety issues, does not properly screen the data it has and has failed time and again to hold automakers accountable for problems among the more than 265 million cars and trucks on America's roads.
Compounding those problems are ineffective management, opaque investigation practices and a staff that is insufficient or ill-trained for the task of analyzing increasingly complex automotive technology, according to the report by the DOT Office of Inspector General.
"Collectively, these weaknesses have resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked," investigators said.
The report, due to be released next week, follows an uproar over faulty General Motors Co ignition switches tied to more than 110 deaths and defective Takata Corp air bag inflators linked to at least eight deaths.
It also comes at a time when Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind are pressing Congress to increase NHTSA's funding and enforcement powers, including another $20 million for defect investigations budget that has been stuck at $10 million for nearly a decade.
Rosekind, a safety expert who took over the agency less than six months ago, has stepped up NHTSA's recall efforts with Takata and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV by employing agency regulatory powers seldom or never exercised in the past.
The OIG report said NHTSA received data on the GM ignition switch problem in 2003 but the information lacked sufficient detail and was inconsistently categorized. It decided not to investigate four years later, without documenting why, and stopped monitoring the issue in 2008 when the staffer in charge left the agency. GM announced a recall in 2014.
NHTSA acknowledged shortcomings in its GM investigation in its own report this month, saying it failed to push back against the automaker's incomplete responses.
"Our audit did not assess whether GM fully disclosed information on the ignition switch issue to NHTSA," OIG investigators acknowledged.
The OIG report, which will be examined at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Tuesday, contains 17 recommendations for overhauling NHTSA. In his official response, Rosekind said the agency would implement them by June 2016.
(Reporting by David Morgan Editing by W Simon)