Lawmakers See Massive Breakdown at NHTSA in GM Recall
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The Fiscal Times
March 26, 2014

Yesterday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a bill that would dramatically increase transparency in the reporting of accidents, fatalities and claims that would make it easier to pinpoint problematic car models.

The bill would require GM and other auto manufacturers to provide the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration copies of insurance claims made against them and lawsuits about fatal crashes in which they were defendants. They would also have to provide copies of internal safety studies related to the car model involved.

“A massive information breakdown at NHTSA has led to deadly vehicle breakdowns on our roads,” Markey said in a statement. He said that the Department of Transportation had the authority to require the additional information be made public, but had never done so.

Related: Why GM May Never Pay a Dime in Liability Claims

The bill is designed to beef up NHTSA’s Early Warning Reporting system, which contains death and injury reports that car manufacturers submit to federal regulators when a defect is suspected. Under the bill, that system would automatically cross-reference with a separate data base that contains information from other sources -- including police reports -- about fatal accidents.

“Timely information can save lives when it reveals lethal defects,” said Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “NHTSA’s job should be to make life-saving information available, not more difficult to access. This up-to-date, accessible database will be a vital tool for drivers and consumer advocates in preventing future harm.

Blumenthal has also joined with families of victims to urge GM to warn the owners of the recalled cars not to drive them until the problem with the ignition system is fixed. They say that a “park it now” order could prevent further accidents from happening. However, GM insists that’s not necessary provided car owners are careful not to load up their key rings with added weight that might force the ignition switch from the “on” position to “accessory.”

Related: How a Watchdog Blew the Lid Off the GM Recall Scandal

Americans overwhelmingly favor tougher federal regulation of the automobile industry in the wake of the General Motors recall of 1.6 million cars with a potentially lethal defect in the ignition and air bag systems. Congress appears poised to accommodate them.

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted March 21-25 found that 67 percent of those surveyed said they either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that the federal government needed to strengthen auto safety regulation. Forty-six percent said they knew about the major vehicle recall by GM, while 38 percent were aware of one by Toyota, which suffered sudden, unintended acceleration problems that were the subject of congressional hearings in 2010.

Related: Lawmaker Accuses GM of “Criminally Deceiving” the Gov’t  

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing next Tuesday on the decade-long failure of GM and federal regulators to blow the whistle on defects in Chevrolet Cobalts and five other GM models that may have contributed to hundreds of fatalities. The problem centered on a temperamental ignition switch that frequently turned off if jostled and cut off power to the steering system, brakes and airbags.

GM officials have said the company knew about the defective switch for more than a decade before finally announcing a recall last month. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) acknowledged it had been looking into the defect off and on for years but was unable to detect a trend that would justify seeking a recall.

Mary Barra, GM’s new CEO, and NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman are scheduled to testify next week on the automaker’s troubled cars. GM has linked the defect to at least 12 deaths and several dozen crashes, but research by the independent Center for Auto Safety points to 303 car crash fatalities.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.