WASHINGTON — State vehicle inspectors are often unsure about how to handle the latest safety technology and are asking the federal government for additional guidance, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO interviewed officials from 15 U.S. states that require periodic vehicle safety inspections and found that "program officials in all 15 states said that additional information from NHTSA — for example, information related to new vehicle safety technologies — would help in operating their programs."
Unfortunately, "there is no designated channel for communication between NHTSA and program officials."
As a result, even a development as seemingly innocuous as LED (light-emitting diode) brake and taillights — increasingly common due to their high visibility, energy efficiency and long life — are throwing inspectors for a loop.
Because these rear lights are made up of dozens of individual LEDs, the inspectors need to know how many of the diodes could fail before the light is considered unsafe, which would cause a vehicle to fail an inspection and possibly result in considerable expense to the owner.
But as of now, no uniform standards exist.
The GAO found that in five states, half the diodes must function in order for the vehicle to pass inspection; one state requires 70 percent to function; three require all of them to work; and one state hasn't set LED criteria yet because officials there are still trying to get NHTSA to respond to their requests for guidelines. (The remaining states didn't provide LED information.)
More advanced safety technology seems to be causing additional problems.
Two examples are back-up cameras — which are on about half of new cars sold today and will be required by government regulation on all light vehicles in 2018 — and tire-pressure monitoring systems, required since 2005.
State officials are asking for more information about whether these systems should be included in inspection programs and exactly how they should be inspected.
But since, according to the study, the NHTSA hasn't updated its standards since 1979, any technologies that have been developed since then are not covered.
Needless to say, those standards don't cover the very latest sensor-based active safety technologies, such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist and forward-collision avoidance systems, many of which are available on popular models like the Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Jetta.
NHTSA officials told the GAO: "There are no NHTSA staff designated to answer questions related to state inspection programs or disseminate relevant information to program officials because agency resources are currently focused on areas that have a greater impact on crash rates, such as driver behavior."
So it's not surprising that the report's recommendation is that the Secretary of Transportation direct NHTSA "to establish and maintain a communication channel with states to convey relevant information related to vehicle inspections and respond to questions from state safety inspection program officials."
The GAO says that its report has been sent to the Department of Transportation and appropriate members of Congress and that it will provide an update when it confirms what action has been taken.
Edmunds says: With advanced vehicle safety systems becoming more common, the GAO's suggestion for improved communication between NHTSA and the states makes sense.