The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

NHTSA Sharply Criticized By Congress

September 17, 2014

Screenshot via U.S. Senate.
Screenshot via U.S. Senate.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came under fire on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Sept. 16, attracting charges from both chambers that the agency failed to provide adequate regulatory oversight of General Motors before the ignition switch recall was finally issued this year.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce released a staff report reviewing NHTSA’s handling of the ignition switch defect, with the report concluding “NHTSA had ample information to identify a potential safety defect as early as 2007.”

The report notes that back in October 2006, a single-vehicle collision involving a Chevrolet Cobalt that veered off-road killed three teenagers and seriously injured another in Wisconsin. A state trooper investigating the accident made the connection between the car’s air bag non-deployment and the ignition switch slipping into the “accessory” position. He drew this conclusion after reviewing a technical service bulletin from GM.

The trooper’s February 2007 report was made available to both GM and NHTSA, but the report “went unnoticed by GM and NHTSA for years,” the committee report said. “This report and how it was handled by GM and NHTSA, respectively, is one example of the numerous failures that prevented each institution from identifying the ignition switch defect and taking timely action.”

Though NHTSA investigators reviewed the state trooper’s report -- as well as another investigation’s findings that also pointed to the ignition switch as a potential cause of air bag failure -- the agency failed to see the similarities with other crashes involving the Chevrolet Cobalt, according to the report.

The ignition switch defect ultimately led to at least 19 fatalities.

The House committee report also concludes that the agency’s failure to follow up on the two reports’ conclusions was “compounded by a lack of understanding of the vehicle systems and functions implemented in response to the agency’s own standards.”

On the same day as this report’s release Sept. 16, NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman appeared before a Senate subcommittee hearing. During the hearing, some members of the subcommittee – particularly chairman Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) – became visibly frustrated with Friedman’s responses to some of their questions.

Though Friedman expressed sympathy for the crash victims and their families, he never agreed that NHTSA’s regulatory failures were partially to blame for the collisions tied to the ignition switch defect. Instead, he stressed that GM had withheld the information needed for NHTSA to make the connection between unexpected stalling and air bag non-deployment.

“GM violated the law,” Friedman said. “They violated the law when they failed to act at a time when air bags were not working properly in millions of their products. Instead of fostering a culture of safety, GM encouraged one of denial and delay that cost lives and endangered the public.”

The subcommittee members agreed that most of the blame fell on GM, but they grew impatient with Friedman’s unwillingness to accept -- on the agency's behalf -- some of the responsibility for recall delays.

Markey and McCaskill both argued that the volume of consumer complaints about unexpected stalling in the vehicles ultimately recalled should have prompted more aggressive action from NHTSA years earlier.

McCaskill also criticized the agency’s reluctance to use its power of subpoena when GM declined to answer questions about the causes of some fatal accidents under review at the time.

When Markey pressed Friedman to give an apology to the American public on behalf of NHTSA for the agency’s regulatory missteps, Friedman didn’t provide one.

“I think we’re frustrated with you, Mr. Friedman, at this point,” McCaskill said.

Friedman did, however, say that NHTSA is "working to establish a new normal when it comes to industry responsiveness to recalls."

He added he's recently met with leaders of 12 major auto makers and delivered the message that "there is zero tolerance for failure to quickly notify the agency of a safety defect."

NHTSA is also asking for additional personnel and funding to acquire new tools to analyze data and conduct investigations, Friedman said. 

Friedman joined NHTSA in May 2013.

To view a video of the hearing, click here.

To access a copy of the NHTSA report released by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, click here.

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  1. 1. Elizabeth Wiley [ November 04, 2014 @ 11:49AM ]

    Congress is SO right, there are no auto safety regulations working..........recalls are after enough law suits or deaths happen to force the issues. I have just gotten off the phone with Toyota, I am very disappointed in them. I was complaining about a Toyota truck for acceleration problems, nothing was said, and then the truck apparently accelerated itself into the path of two kids racing. THEY said I ran the red light. I had been hit before, and am the person everyone honks at the second the light turns green....Those kids after a long State Insurance investigation (the insurance company was the same for one of the vehicles, the other drove away before the police arrived, and myself-they said, 49/51 and did not have to pay either of us.) I was seriously injured, my vehicle totaled and taken from the tow lot to the junk yard. Some month, maybe even years later, I received a recall notice from Toyota, and let them know it was a bit late, I was crippled, on crutches and braces, and without a vehicle. I decided to just let Toyota take their responsibility, and not get into what I knew would be a long drawn out idiocy of trying to make ME responsible, either I did run a red light, and the truck accelerated itself into lanes three and four to get hit by those speeding kids, OR I did NOT run the red light, and that truck accelerated itself into lanes three and four to get hit by those racing kids...............either way, the truck moved itself fast enough to enter those two lanes and get hit. I had for years actually stopped well before the limit line, and behind other vehicles because of the acceleration by itself when the brake was released. On the road, in traffic, I always kept a large space between my truck and other vehicles, because if I braked for traffic, the truck would often accelerate itself in a scary way towards what was in its way. I think we as a nation need to have a better system than corporations hiding their faults, until they are found out and have to file a people are safe, the issue needs to be safety, not money, and not hiding corporations from being liable. I was given an application that did not have the year of my vehicle on it, so I emailed, or called, not sure which, and was told, put the closest year, we will figure it out. They did not. They just accused me of lying and now, four years later, in a rude, legalistic manner say, too bad you trusted us, we are not trustworthy, because you should have sued. What a crock. I am disabled, was disabled in fact when I bought the truck to volunteer in a veterans and high risk youth equine therapy program which I kept volunteering even when I had to take busses, and walk up a steep mountain to take care of the horses and teach the program after the truck was totaled. I had to rent trucks for events, and had to pay to have hay and other supplies delivered since my truck was the only one we had to use at the time for the Foundation. We can do better America than just force corporations to be jerks when they harm people because of big law suits. I just wanted a truck to replace the one I had to pay off, even when it was totaled. I accept responsibility for that part, I had just changed insurance companies and not realized my contract was not covered on the new policy, but did not see why my credit union should have to not be paid...............America can do better.


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