June brought the announcement by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the launch of a new website. That site is focused on making it easier for employees, contractors, and others to report concerns over vehicle and traffic safety issues. Referred to as the “whistleblower” program, the NHSTA site focuses on collecting information and concerns about potentially errant parts suppliers, dealerships, and motor vehicle manufacturers.
Empowering the Vehicle Safety Act
Congress passed a special provision in 2015 that went into effect in January 2016 to encourage individuals who have information concerning safety issues and potential violations to report them. The act also provides monetary rewards for any whistleblower that provides information leading to a successful enforcement action for such violations.
The act includes provisions to protect the confidentiality of those who file any report. The announcement and update by the NHTSA indicate the site is a detailed information page designed to aid any potential whistleblower in filing a complaint.
According to the Acting Administrator of the NHTSA, Dr. Steven Cliff, “Safety is the top priority for NHTSA and the entire U.S. Department of Transportation. Whistleblowers play a critical role in safeguarding our nation’s roadways, and we will do everything in our power to protect them.”
The announcement explained that the agency is currently working on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking designed to formalize the program and make it easier for whistleblowers to use the program. It also sought to make it clear that there was no need for any potential whistleblower to wait for the NPRM.
The new information page includes topics such as:
What is the Whistleblower Program?
Who is eligible for whistleblower status?
What should my submission contain?
What happens after I make a whistleblower submission?
What happens if I was discriminated against or retaliated against for reporting motor vehicle safety information?
The Focus of the Whistleblower Program
Employees and contractors of the covered entities are asked by the NHSTA to report and provide information on a range of topics of concern and perceived violations. These include:
Noncompliance with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards
Violations of the Vehicle Safety Act
Potential vehicle safety defects
Other items or concerns dealing with the safe operation of motor vehicle safety
The new site also explains what happens when information is filed. Once the agency has the information, it may proceed with a variety of actions, including investigations, issuing recalls, or initiating civil penalty enforcement actions.
The whistleblower can also track the progress of the action and check on its outcome. The site explains how to claim an award if and when an enforcement action is successfully resolved. The potential award for a whistleblower is ten to thirty percent of the monetary sanctions over $1 million.
Prior NHSTA Enforcement Actions
The penalties collected in these NHSTA actions are potentially quite significant. For example, in an action against Kia Motors that was agreed to in November of 2020, the whistleblower payment was $27 million on a total civil penalty collected of $70 million.
In another case in FY 2021, $54 million was paid on a total penalty of $140 million collected from Hyundai Motor America for inaccuracies in the Defect and Noncompliance Information Report.
Other recent actions that resulted in payouts to whistleblowers included resolution of complaints about the sale and delivery of unremedied recalled vehicles, failure to timely notify owners of the existence of a defect, and failure to submit required EWR reports.
These awards are publicized to both encourage whistleblowers and to show the target players in the transportation industries the risks they take in ignoring the impact of the Vehicle Safety Act.
Representatives of the NHTSA closed their introduction of the new website by stressing that their action is motivated by the desire to make the whistleblower program easier to access. They also stressed that past actions and awards demonstrate how important a role the program plays in the enhancement of the safety of U.S. roadways.