The hearing in the U.S. Senate on Sept. 16 turned into more than many believed it would. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Deputy Administrator David Friedman had to defend agency probes of air bag failures that were eventually linked to the defective ignition switch defect that has killed and injured hundreds. He told the Senate panel that General Motors (GM) tried to “hide the ball” from investigators. Friedman disputed lawmakers who attempted to blame GM’s failures on incompetence — the automaker’s own explanation for the crisis — telling a panel of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that GM had “not silos, but firewalls” in place to block its own employees from providing the agency with information about ignition switch flaws and their link to air bags’ non-deployment.
Lawmakers including Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., made it clear that GM had the “majority of the blame” for the decade-long delay in addressing a most serious product defect that was causing the ignition switch to slip from the “run” position, stalling the vehicle and turning off its air bags. But Friedman was had difficulty explaining NHTSA’s own lapses that prevented it from identifying the problem. There were at least two separate reports in the agency’s possession that could have shown at a link between the ignition switches and air bag problems. Friedman defended his agency reviews of those GM car crashes, suggesting that the link between ignition switches and air-bag failures was more remote than other possible explanations, making it difficult for the agency to have made that connection without GM’s input. Friedman told the panel:
GM was trying to hide the ball. This wasn’t simply incompetence. GM had policies in order to hide the word ‘defect.’ NHTSA was trying hard to find the ball, but it was missing key pieces of evidence.
A significant refrain in the panel’s questioning was why NHTSA did not consider the stalling of a vehicle — even independent of any air-bag failure — a safety problem. GM executives have told lawmakers that one of the main reasons the company reacted so slowly, despite being aware of ignition switch issues, is that it believed the problems caused the vehicle only to stall, but not to shut off air bags. Internal documents from GM will prove without any doubt that lots of key folks at the automaker knew about the defect and its consequences and were involved in a massive cover up.
GM had said it believed that a vehicle merely stalling was a matter of customer convenience, rather than a safety issue. Sen. Ed Markey questioned Friedman about a secret meeting between NHTSA and GM in 2004 regarding vehicles stalling by themselves. Both GM and NHTSA staff agreed at the time that the stalling wasn’t a safety problem, which is unbelievable and totally unacceptable.
Friedman said that although stalling could be a serious problem, it did not automatically qualify as a serious safety concern. If he really believed that statement, this man has no business in a key role at NHTSA. Sen. Markey observed:
If you’re in a passing lane and you’re moving at 60 mph, and you have a flat, you’re panicking because you’re four lanes away from where you could pull over, that’s a problem. The same thing would be true if your ignition just stops. Just common sense says that the circumstances in which [a car could stall] can be such that it is a real danger. Whether the air bag deploys or not, it’s a real danger.
The Senate hearing came after a scathing House report released earlier that same day, in which the House Energy and Commerce Committee cast NHTSA as a bumbling agency that failed to connect the dots between the evidence it already had. It received one such piece of critical evidence as early as 2007, when a Wisconsin State Trooper’s crash investigation report linked air bag failure to the ignition switch. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., brought up the Trooper’s report during the Senate hearing, asking Friedman to explain why the agency did not follow up on it.
Lawmakers also questioned leaders from consumer safety group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and the carmakers association Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, questioning whether the GM crisis shows a need for greater funding for NHTSA. Jacqueline Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, noted that the agency receives roughly one percent of the funding for the Department of Transportation. She said also that the agency has continued to receive roughly $10 million yearly for investigations into defects, while the number of vehicles on the road has increased by 23 percent in the past decade.
I have said consistently that NHSTA is both underfunded and understaffed. The agency lacks the expertise to adequately regulate the politically powerful automobile industry. Congress has to take the blame for that situation and it’s something that must be corrected.
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