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GM and NHTSA Fail To Protect Public on Ignition Switch Fiasco

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I reported on the GM recall of Chevy Cobalts and Pontiac G5 compacts last month.   The recall is imminent. The issue, which has provoked some hard questions, is why it took GM so long to recall the cars with faulty ignition switches. And also, why it took the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) this long to get involved.

The first reported death occurred in 2005, when a 16-year-old girl died after the airbag did not deploy on impact. Since that time there have been 31 known crashes and 13 deaths attributed to the faulty ignition switches. GM has just gotten around to talking about a recall. The recall letter will go out soon GM says. But the replacement ignition switches won’t be available until early to mid April.

It’s unconscionable to think that GM ignored this deathly product flaw for over 8 years. And equally chilling to realize the NHTSA knew about it by 2006 and is just now taking action.

Here is the excuse from GM: “The replacement parts have to be manufactured, tested and verified, a process that is leading to the uncertainty in when repairs will be made,” GM spokesman Alan Adler said.   Eight years later and the best GM can do is issue this statement, “We deeply regret the events that led to the recall and this investigation. We intend to fully cooperate with NHTSA and we welcome the opportunity to help the agency have a full understanding of the facts.” (WSJ, 2/27/14)

According to the New York Times, a NHTSA Special Crash Investigations team first encountered the problem in a crash that killed a 16-year-old in 2005. The agency sent a request for information to GM about a year later. Another NHTSA team began investigating a similar crash that killed a teenage girl in Wisconsin in 2006.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety sums it up with his statement, “This is a total failure of the recall system. Both GM and NHTSA bear responsibility.”   That is an accurate assessment.

He goes on, however, to talk about the restrictions placed on the NHTSA by budget restrictions that limit its capacity to investigate every case. A legitimate concern that many governmental agencies can use for failing to carry out their mandated responsibilities. Last month the NHTSA told CBS News that it constantly monitors accidents. “The data available… at the time did not contain sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation,” it said.

The GM ignition case should have warranted more attention by NHTSA. Two deaths in two years, 2005 and 2006, with clear evidence to connect the faulty ignition switch to disabled air bags.  Exactly how many deaths (or even serious injuries) attributed to a clear product defect does it take to at least notify and warn customers of a problem?  What is the number GM?  NHTSA?  We want to know the answer.  By the end of 2007, the automaker was aware of 10 such crashes involving the ignition switch in accessory mode with data to verify that four of those crashes were linked to the faulty ignition.

Alan Batey, GM president for North America, is issuing another apology and talking about rebuilding consumer trust. “We will only look back to learn what we can do to keep this promise going forward. We are committed to learn from the past while building a new future.”   Both Batey and his boss, GM CEO Mary Barra, are talking about a brand new day. On March 5, in an unprecedented move, Barra came out with a statement taking personal control for the recall of the 1.3 million faulty vehicles. Bold move for a CEO; she’s staking her reputation on this particular recall.  That took some brass, and I think it was the right thing to do.  Now the actions need to match the rhetoric.  Nonetheless, it is a very optimist sign for a company that has some credibility issues right now.