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.