Massive recalls of automobiles with faulty air bags, ignition switches or other equipment often start with a few consumer complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), where federal employees in the vehicle safety office closely review the information and conduct investigations.
They get to the bottom of each complaint, whether the issue turns into an investigation or not, said Frank S. Borris II, director of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation since 2011. Some of the 50 employees he oversees also examine warranty claims and death and injury data that may signal an early warning of serious danger.
“We get 78,000 complaints from consumers about everything under the sun,” said Borris, 49. “We don’t filter out complaints. We take them all in.”
A vehicle’s peeling paint or a faulty navigation system may indicate a problem that isn’t a safety defect, but Borris said it’s essential to explain that to drivers so the next time they notice a problem, they again think of contacting NHTSA, knowing they will get a response.
The office also pays attention to emerging technologies to make sure they pose no safety risk.
Some defects investigations have blown up into huge public issues.
“By far the hottest issue we’re working on right now is the Takata air bag inflators,” Borris said, referring to the air-bag maker whose product shattered in numerous instances, spraying metal shards that killed six people and injured others. “That’s an open investigation that’s very unusual in terms of the scope.”
The investigation, now involving more than 10 vehicle manufacturers and more than 11 million vehicles, started with a handful of complaints, he said.
The office doesn’t have thresholds or formulas for starting an investigation. “We look at trends that raise eyebrows, some of them with just one or two complaints,” Borris said. He added that he takes pride in representing the public, which often “does not have a voice when facing a Fortune 500 company.”
By the time the complaint reaches NHTSA, the consumer usually has been to a dealer or a mechanic and hasn’t gotten any satisfaction, and they’re already upset, Borris said.
“Our job is to get the facts out of them,” Borris said. “What happened? Did you hear anything? Do you have receipts from the technician? Did you smell anything unusual?”
Borris also communicates with vehicle and equipment manufacturers on a regular basis.
“NHTSA and I do not like to be in a cat and mouse enforcement posture with industry,” Borris said. “Safety is everyone’s responsibility, manufacturers just as much as NHTSA. Manufacturers that communicate with us early and often are likely to stay out of trouble.”
If manufacturers do not respond to information requests, NHTSA has the authority to assess penalties. In late February, Takata started being fined $14,000 a day in civil penalties for not providing data requested by Borris’ office.
The job held by Borris is one of the department’s most important and most difficult, said Daniel Smith, senior associate administrator of vehicle safety at NHTSA.
“It has direct impact on the safety of consumers who either own or ride in motor vehicles, which is virtually every American,” he said.
“It’s challenging to find the problems among 265 million vehicles and determine which warrant attention with limited resources and make sure those problems are fixed,” Smith said. “That is his constant task and he does a great job at it.”
Critics often attack the office for being too slow in its investigations or not explaining the issue while in the midst of examining the problem, Borris said, and it’s important not to take the criticism personally.
“Some detractors are pretty vocal,” he said. “I sometimes will walk around the office and say to staff, ‘Something came out in the paper. It may not look pretty. Stay focused, keep doing your job. This is about safety.’ ”
He pointed out that over the past 10 years, the office has had a hand in 1,300 recalls covering 95 million vehicles and pieces of equipment.
Car safety begins and ends with the consumer, Borris said. Drivers need to inform NHTSA of defects, but also pay attention to recall letters and fix the problems identified. NHTSA now has a website—safercar.gov/vinlookup—for drivers to see if there are recalls on their vehicle.
In addition to safety, Borris has a passion for cars themselves. Long a vintage muscle car buff, he bought his first hot rod—a 1967 Barracuda—at age 15, despite his mother saying no. He tinkered on it at a neighbor’s house for a year before learning his mother knew of the purchase all along.
He still has that Barracuda.
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at email@example.com.