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NHTSA Now Under Scrutiny With GM Over Ignition Switch Defect

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The GM-National Traffic Highway Safety Administration debacle continues with much finger pointing and rhetoric. The story of General Motor’s failure to issue a timely recall started when they issued the first notice of a recall on February 13.     They expanded the recall on February 25, adding more models and raising the number from 778,00 to over 1.6 million vehicles.  By the end of February questions began to arise about why GM has taken so long to fix a problem that began causing crashes and deaths as far back as 2004.

Now the scrutiny is being extended to the NHTSA. Why did they wait so long? The New York Times did a thorough investigation of the accidents, consumer complaints to both GM and the NHTSA, and the ongoing communications between the two. I think this comment from Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, states the dilemma,  “While GM bears complete responsibility for failing to recall these vehicles by 2005, when it knew what the defect was and how to fix it, NHTSA has responsibility for failing to order a recall by early 2007, when it knew what the effect was and how to fix it.”  Ditlow is calling for a probe of the government agency, which is tasked with consumer highway safety. 

Joan Claybrook, who led the safety agency during the Carter administration, seems to agree with him, “The ability to spot trends is a huge issue, and N.H.T.S.A. has not got it under control by any means.”

General Motors announced on March 10, 2014, that it is launching an internal investigation to be led by a former federal prosecutor, Anton R. Valukas, who was the court-appointed examiner of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. And the Energy and Commerce subcommittee is launching its own investigation, under the leadership of Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, who led the 2000 investigation of the Ford Explorer rollover issue.  When questioned, Mr. Upton indicated that he is interested in knowing how both GM and the NHTSA failed to see a trend in the reports of the faulty ignition.  “Here we are over a decade later, faced with accidents and tragedies, and significant questions need to be answered,” he said. “Did the company or regulators miss something that could have flagged these problems sooner?

To date, there are no official plans to investigate the NHTSA. However they do appear to be stepping up the intensity of their investigation. GM has until April 3 to answer 107 questions posed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about “how it mishandled the switch problems and what individual employees were responsible for not taking action on what G.M. now admits was a deadly safety defect.”  

As early as 2006, GM disclosed the problem to dealers, quietly issuing a service bulletin, which resulted in repairs to 474 cars. Yet, NHTSA told Congressman Barney Frank, in a 2010 letter that it had reviewed its database of complaints to determine if a “safety defect trend” existed. “At this time, there is insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation,” the letter concluded. “   (NYT, 3/11/14)

In its investigation the New York Times concludes that there have been reports of at least 78 deaths and 1,581 injuries, involving the now-recalled cars, since 2003. “Though the records mention potentially defective components, how many of these records were related to the ignition problem is unclear. Even with that additional information, regulators appear to have overlooked disturbing complaints of engine shutdowns.”  (NYT, 3/11/14)

The NHTSA is in defensive mode, citing the small number of complaints relative to overall consumer concerns. They say that data alone did not show a safety defect trend; there must be a combination of consumer complaints, crash investigations and other evidence in order to warrant an investigation.

The NHTSA’s justification for its failure to act has to be painful for the surviving family members of those who died as a result of the GM ignition switch defect. The story is far from over but at least consumers finally have the knowledge to take action and attempt to protect themselves—a job the NHTSA has failed to do to date.

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  1. Kafantaris says:
    up arrow

    Why hang safety entirely on an ignition switch?
    GM and other car companies should delay the time between the ignition switch shut off and the cutoff of power to the steering, the brakes, the airbags and the entire electronic monitoring system.
    Moreover, if the car is moving, power cutoff time should be delayed further to give the driver a chance to safely pull off the road — or turn the ignition back on.
    Electric powered systems are safe and the way of the future.
    And they don’t need to be shut off as soon as the ignition goes off.
    What’s the hurry, anyway?