No NHTSA Whistleblower Rules Yet
When Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act as part of the FAST Act last December, it gave the Transportation Department 18 months to implement the regulations for the new whistleblower statute. A year later, there has been no public notice soliciting feedback on the new rules.
On one hand, Congress opened the auto whistleblower program when it passed the bill. Rather than wait for the rules to be developed, it made individuals providing information on any day after the signing of the legislation preliminarily eligible for an award. In other words, information received after Congress passed the whistleblower law can be “original information” under the statute.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is the group at the Department of Transportation that currently brings enforcement actions for violations of the recall rules. So we have assumed that the whistleblower office created by this bill will lie in that office.
The NHTSA has been focused this year on self-driving cars, releasing the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy in September 2016. Calendar year 2016 has been pretty quiet from the agency on fines for manufacturers violating the safety rules, particularly compared to 2015 when both the delayed GM recall and Takata airbag failures were top of mind.
The rules are important, however, because recent history suggests that this quiet period is unlikely to last. There have been three large fines of auto manufacturers over the past decade and several years of record enforcement fines by the NHTSA. Whistleblowers will be an important part of helping the government discover companies that are not playing by the rules for the years to come. And in order to get comfortable with reporting this information to the government, the rules need to be in place.
What is the NHTSA Whistleblower Statute?
The Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act establishes provisions for whistleblowers to report motor vehicle safety violations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and provides protections against retaliation. While specific cases under this act might not be widely reported, it’s important to note that whistleblowers can play a crucial role in identifying safety defects and violations within the automotive industry.
However, there have been notable cases in the broader context of automotive safety and related laws, such as the False Claims Act (FCA) and other whistleblower protections. These cases have involved allegations of fraud, safety defects, non-compliance with regulations, and other misconduct within the automotive industry. Some well-known cases include:
- Takata Airbag Recall: This case involved the widespread recall of Takata airbags due to safety defects that could cause the airbags to explode, resulting in injuries and deaths. Whistleblowers played a role in exposing the safety issues, leading to investigations, recalls, and legal actions.
- Volkswagen Emissions Scandal: This case involved Volkswagen’s deliberate installation of software in its diesel vehicles to manipulate emissions testing results. Whistleblowers provided crucial information that exposed the fraud, leading to significant legal consequences for the company.
- General Motors Ignition Switch Defect: This case involved a defect in General Motors (GM) vehicles’ ignition switches, which could cause the engine to shut off unexpectedly, disabling critical safety systems such as airbags. Whistleblowers and investigations helped uncover the issue, leading to recalls and legal actions against GM.
While these cases are not specific to the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act, they highlight the importance of whistleblowers in uncovering safety defects, fraud, and misconduct within the automotive industry, which can have significant implications for public safety and consumer protection.