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Transport Canada needs reform to detect safety issues more quickly, auditor says

Transport Canada has an out-of-date regulatory framework that fails to respond quickly to safety risks or stay current with safety issues being investigated by manufacturers in their own vehicles.

That’s the conclusion of Auditor General Michael Ferguson, after examining the regulatory agency’s record in a report to Parliament tabled Tuesday.

Ferguson found that Transport Canada’s oversight of vehicle safety defects and recalls was “adequate,” but it failed to identify safety defects early and to influence manufacturers’ recalls, often relying on its U.S. counterpart to flag issues.

The past two years have seen significant safety and standards concerns in the automotive sector, including the widespread recall of Takata airbags, the revelation that Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests, and the General Motors ignition switch defect that led to the deaths of at least two Canadians.

Confusion and uncertainty over these recalls has consumers wondering whether their regulator is protecting their interests.

Auditor General says delays at Transport Canada endangering the public1:15

No knowledge of GM ignition switch fiasco

The auditor general found Transport Canada did not have any knowledge about GM’s ignition switch defect before recalls began in 2014, though the company had been investigating the switch internally since 2004.

His investigation was conducted by analyzing 25 complaints and investigations of alleged safety defects that were collected between 2014 and 2015.

Ferguson found Transport Canada’s records of accidents and injuries involving motor vehicles to be incomplete.

For recalls of vehicles that were more than four years old and may have changed hands, the department did not have a good mechanism to contact all the owners, he added.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson on ‘alarming gaps’ in government programs8:03

The department’s approach “failed to ensure that Canadian-driven passenger vehicles had the highest possible safety features and technologies,” his report said.

Ferguson said in a news conference thatTransport Canada has rules about the kind of bulb you can have over your licence plate, but not for the software to run automated vehicles.

“The pace of change in vehicles right now is extremely fast…and it will take Transport Canada 10 years or more to make changes in its regulations,” he said.

Ferguson’s recommendations for Transport Canada include:

  • Working more closely with the insurance industry, medical associations, and police.
  • Updating regulations, providing time for technical and public input on safety standards.
  • Requesting information from safety investigations by the manufacturers themselves.
  • Creating a long-term plan for a Motor Vehicle Safety Directorate.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Directorate independently tests the crashworthiness, crash avoidance systems, and ergonomics of vehicles to improve safety and suggest new standards.

Concern over cuts to independent testing

Ferguson was concerned about lack of stable funding for this area of Transport Canada’s mandate.

For example, the operating budget for crashworthiness testing was cut by 59 per cent for the 2016–17 fiscal year, from $1.2 million to $492,000, even though the department had just spent $5.4 million on a crash-test wall.

Scion 1A crash test

The auditor general is concerned at lack of funding or long-term plan for Canada’s Motor Vehicle Safety Directorate. (IIHS)

It also cut funding for six regional teams that provided useful information on vehicle injury statistics through contact with academic experts, hospitals, coroners’ reports and police.

The Auditor General also found the department was slow in updating regulatory standards to incorporate emerging technology.

“Overall, we found that Transport Canada did not develop motor vehicle safety standards to respond to emerging risks and issues in a timely manner. It generally waited for the United States to change its motor vehicle safety standards before modifying Canadian standards,” Ferguson wrote in his report.

Although the U.S. has robust safety standards, he noted that Canadian drivers often face different conditions, including a colder climate, more variable hours of daylight, distinct road infrastructure, and differences in the vehicle fleet.