The Government Released a Tool to View 50 Years of Car Recalls

It's yet another sign an important regulatory agency is waking up from a decades-long slumber.
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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a new open data tool that, for the first time, makes it easy to look up vehicle recalls issued in the U.S. since 1966, something automakers absolutely hate because recalls are embarrassing and expensive for them to issue. 

The new tool, which was announced last week, allows anyone to easily dig into the 24,962 recalls NHTSA has issued since 1966. Previously, one had to download the entire dataset and evaluate it using Microsoft Access, a database management tool. The new tool makes it easy to look up recalls by manufacturers, year, recall type, and more. For example, with just a few clicks, you can make a pie chart that shows that this year Tesla had four recalls affecting 148,621 vehicles, compared to 23 recalls from General Motors affecting 6,985,682. 

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The move is yet another sign NHTSA is emerging from decades of complacency under new acting administrator Steven Cliff, the former deputy executive officer for the California Air Resources Board. “More than 50 years of recall data are now easily available to the media, researchers, safety advocates, and anyone interested in learning more about vehicle safety," Cliff said in the press release. "This initiative is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s commitment to safety on our roadways, and it provides increased transparency and accountability to the American people.”

NHTSA has a storied track record of using transparency and customer information initiatives to make roads safer, most prominently the New Car Assessment Program that awards star ratings to vehicles based on their safety. But the program has stagnated for decades and is now useless

But that may be changing. Also last week, NHTSA announced car companies will have to report crashes where semi-autonomous or driverless vehicle measures are involved, which ought to provide desperately needed transparency into whether these technologies like Tesla's Autopilot actually make roads safer.