The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has finally admitted that it missed vital clues in its investigation of fatal crashes linked to the now infamous General Motors Co. ignition switch defect. To its credit, from all appearances, NHTSA is trying to do a better job of regulating the powerful automobile industry. The report, entitled “NHTSA’s Path Forward,” is the culmination of the agency’s internal review of why the ignition switch defect — now linked to more than 100 deaths from crashes involving GM vehicles including Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions — took more than a decade to be discovered.
NHTSA claims not to have known about the defect until February 2014. The agency acknowledged that despite having investigated crashes as far back as 2005 involving air bag non-deployment in GM vehicles, it never connected faulty ignition switches to the air bags. Quite frankly – even with limited resources, I find that impossible to justify.
NHTSA also admitted that it hadn’t recognized the ignition switch problem as a potential safety issue, believing that vehicles with stalled engines could still be steered, and that the vehicles’ air bags could be deployed using reserve power. Again, for anybody with even limited expertise in auto safety, to not recognize that a defective ignition switch is a serious safety issue is beyond me. The agency said that it did not push GM hard enough to answer its questions about serious crashes, accepting incomplete responses by the automaker, which the agency said had invoked legal privilege. NHTSA said in its report:
Rather than push back and request more information, NHTSA analyzed the incomplete responses, preventing NHTSA from having a complete understanding of all the incidents in question.
NHTSA said that its Office of Defects Investigation, which has the responsibility to identify defects and analyze accident data, will now be required to “study and understand how vehicle systems interact.” NHTSA says a team — called the Safety Systems Team, comprising outside experts — will help the agency implement changes to the way it operates. The agency is also establishing a new internal risk control program. Staff across the agency will be required to communicate about vehicle risk issues throughout its “enforcement, vehicle safety and behavioral safety efforts.” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the statement:
NHTSA has identified improvements, some already in progress and some we plan to make, to better investigate, identify and remedy defects that threaten public safety. With the [Safety Systems Team], we are enlisting three of the most experienced and knowledgeable safety professionals in the world to help us implement these changes. And with the Risk Control Innovations Program, we are breaking down stovepipes and reaching into offices from across NHTSA to address safety risks.
David Friedman, the acting NHTSA administrator at the time, was the person at the agency who defended the agency’s approach last year to lawmakers. He was questioned by several senators on why the agency didn’t recognize stalling as a serious safety problem. In a September hearing before a panel of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Friedman claimed that GM had thwarted the agency’s efforts. He said the automaker had “firewalls” in place to block its employees from providing the agency with information. If his assessment of the situation is true, the problems at NHTSA are much deeper than even I thought they were.
NHTSA’s report hit hard on GM’s role in the defect’s belated revelation. It was stated that the automaker’s engineers knew about the faulty part since 2001 and that its lawyers knew at least since April 2013 that the defective part had been changed in a “surreptitious manner” that broke the automaker’s protocol. NHTSA said in the report:
Evidence showed that in-house and outside legal counsel for GM believed a defect preventing air bag deployment existed — ultimately warning that plaintiffs’ counsel would very likely convince jurors that the low-torque switch was defective. This information was not shared with NHTSA until after the announcement of the recall in 2014.
Much of Friedman’s defense of his agency’s reviews of GM car crashes to lawmakers simply doesn’t hold water. He said 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. I question that assessment because NHTSA definitely had information in its possession that was ignored.
GM is currently settling claims arising from deaths and injuries from ignition switch-related accidents. The compensation fund, administered by Kenneth Feinberg, has done a credible job in reviewing and paying claims. The fund was developed as part of GM’s response to the problem that prompted the recall of some 2.6 million ignition switches last year. We have been generally well satisfied with the amounts awarded to our clients by the Fund.
The report on NHTSA from the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, released last month, was hard-hitting and quite factual. It’s evident that NHTSA must be properly funded and adequately staffed and this must happen without delay. Our government is currently trying to regulate the powerful automobile industry in a manner that is grossly inadequate. It’s sort of like trying to control an angry elephant with a small switch.
Hopefully both Congress and NHTSA learned lessons – although very painful ones – that will make our highways safer in the near future. Congress must properly fund NHTSA and also make sure the agency has the statutory authority to do its job.
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