DOT Mum on Reason Behind Delay of Auto Safety Whistleblower Rules

DOT Whistleblower

In response to an inquiry by Whistleblower Network News, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) declined to comment on the reasons behind the years-long delay in publishing Congressionally-mandated regulations implementing an auto-safety whistleblower award program.

On April 14, 2023, the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published proposed rules implementing the whistleblower provisions of Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act (MVSWA). These proposed rules were published nearly seven years past a deadline set by Congress for final rules to be published.

Passed in January 2015 as part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act), the MVSWA mandated that the DOT approve and publish regulations implementing its whistleblower program on or before July 6, 2016.

Over the years whistleblower advocates and members of Congress have repeatedly called out the DOT on its delay in publishing rules and asked for explanation. The DOT has consistently failed to provide reasoning for the delay.

For example, in March 2021, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Edward Markey (D-MA) sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg demanding that the DOT immediately implement the whistleblower program. The letter also posed the question of “Why did NHTSA miss the statutory deadline for the rulemaking?”

Following the letter, the Wall Street Journal reported that “a spokeswoman for NHTSA declined to comment on why the agency hasn’t yet established the whistleblower program, inaction that spanned both the Obama and Trump presidencies. She said the new administration has made the program a priority and is working on making rules for it.”

According to the NHTSA, even in the absence of rules the NHTSA has been functional. They report that they have received over 150 tips and have even paid out one whistleblower award: a $24 million award to a whistleblower who exposed untimely recalls from the automobile manufacturer Hyundai and Kia.

However, whistleblower advocates argue that by delaying the publication of regulations implementing the program, the DOT has greatly undermined the ability of the program to incentivize whistleblowers with knowledge of auto safety issues.

In the opinion of leading whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn, the rules finally proposed by the NHTSA continue to come up short. “The agency did not exercise its discretion to ensure that all qualified whistleblowers would obtain a reward, the proposal fails to provide adequate safeguards ensuring that internal compliance programs are independent and ethical,” Kohn, a founding partner of Kohn, Kohn & Colapinto said. “They even follow many of the now discredited regulations that were implemented ten years ago by the SEC.”

The proposed rules are in a public comment period until June 13. Whistleblower advocates are hopeful that public pressure during the public comment period will push the DOT to adopt rules consistent with those used by the highly successful SEC Whistleblower Program.

Further Reading:

Auto Safety Whistleblower Rules: Delayed and Deficient

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