Back in 1977, federal regulators recalled 250,000 Ford vans after receiving a single complaint from a Rockville, Maryland, consumer about a defect in the dashboard that shattered and caused facial injuries. A decade later, in 1987, it took just a single complaint from a North Carolinian about a steering wheel coming loose to prompt a recall of 104,000 Volkswagen Fox vehicles.
Yet for the better part of a decade, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) repeatedly refused to force General Motors to recall nearly 1.6 million compact cars, despite steadily mounting evidence that a defect in their ignition switches was contributing to freakish accidents that may have killed at least 303 people, by one estimate.
As early as 2001, GM became aware in the pre-production stage of one of its models that the ignition switch, if jostled, could shift from the “on” to the “accessory” position, and in the process cut off the car’s power brakes and steering and prevent the airbags from deploying in the event of an accident. The dangers were clear: If a driver accidentally brushed his knee up against the ignition or if there was too much weight on the key ring, the car could suddenly be rendered inoperable, even it was moving at 60 miles an hour. Nothing would work and the airbags wouldn’t deploy if the car ran off the road and struck a tree or pole.
The problem first popped up on NHTSA’s radar screen in August 2005, when it began a special crash investigation into the death of 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose of Maryland, who was killed in a crash after the airbag in her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt failed to deploy. Two other women were killed in a similar accident in Wisconsin in October 2006 that also involved a defective 2005 Cobalt.
The ignition and airbag problem was clearly on the minds of NHTSA officials when they met with GM representatives in Washington on March 29, 2007, according to a timeline prepared by GM officials. Although the topic wasn’t on the meeting agenda, NHTSA officials brought up the Maryland crash and had some disturbing news.
The car’s black box – a sensing and diagnostic module - indicated that the ignition switch had been found in the accessory mode and the airbag never deployed. Rather than blowing the whistle on GM, NHTSA inexplicably decided against either opening a full-blown investigation or ordering a recall of the Cobalt and other models with a similar problem.
Between 2004 and 2012, NHTSA received at least 51 so-called Early Warning Reports of death claims that involved ignition, steering, airbag and other electrical issues in the 2005 to 2007 Chevrolet Cobalts, and the 2003 to 2007 Saturn Ions, according to the GM timelines. During that same period, NHTSA sent GM queries about the circumstances surrounding 19 death claims it had received that might have involved the ignition switch and airbag problem.
NHTSA is an agency of the Department of Transportation, charged with regulating and policing the auto industry. It describes its mission as “Save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes.” Yet while it has clearly shown an eagerness in the past to pounce on potentially fatal defects in the cars of other manufacturers, the agency was mysteriously passive in dealing with GM’s decade-old ignition design problems.
“While GM bears complete responsibility for failing to recall these vehicles by 2005…NHTSA has a responsibility for failing to order a recall by early 2007 when it knew what the defect was and how to fix it,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog organization.
Last month, GM finally issued a recall for 1.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Pontiac G5s, and four other compact models to correct the ignition switch problem. GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra, repeatedly apologized for the fiasco that GM acknowledges contributed to at least 12 deaths and three dozen crashes. “Clearly lives have been lost and families are affected, and that is very serious,” she said. The recall has prompted a series of investigations by the Justice Department, Congress and the same federal regulatory agency that essentially downplayed the problem for years. NHTSA officials insist they have nothing to apologize for because until recently they lacked the evidence to step in and order a recall.
“Each potential recall investigation is unique and dependent on the data gathered in each case,” the agency said in a recent statement. “Regarding the recent recall of certain GM vehicles, the data available to NHTSA at the time did not contain sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation.”
However, a new study by the Center for Auto Safety released Wednesday shows that, since 2000, NHTSA has repeatedly opened car defect investigations with far less information or evidence than it had in the GM case.
David J. Friedman, the acting administrator of NHTSA, is certain to be questioned closely about his agency’s seemingly passive role when he appears next Tuesday with Barra to testify jointly before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chair of the committee, told Bloomberg recently that the hearings will examine the conduct of both GM and NHTSA, the auto industry’s main safety regulator, and that he has plenty of questions for both sides.
“The most troubling thing is that it appears these cases were identified as early as 2001,” Upton said. “It’s 2014 now. I first learned about it reading USA Today two or three weeks ago. No earlier clues or earlier notification. It appears that there could have been hundreds of cases.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts have introduced a bill that would require automakers to share more information about fatal accidents in an effort to help federal regulators uncover defects such as GM’s troubled ignition switch.
Markey, a critic of the regulators’ track record, noted in a recent letter to Friedman that the GM recall “is not the only example of a major safety recall that could have benefitted from more extensive [early warning] reporting requirements and transparency.”
For example, Toyota reported 301 incidents of deaths and injuries due to potential unintended acceleration issues between 2003 and 2009, yet NHTSA requested additional information for only 15 of those cases, according to Markey. Moreover, when 26 reports of fire-related deaths and injuries were filed between 2003 and 2010 for the Jeep Cherokee, NHTSA requested no additional documentation from the manufacturer.
Ditlow yesterday expressed outrage over NHTSA’s assertion that they didn’t have enough evidence until now to identify a “safety defect trend.” He said that the agency has opened defect investigations “with far less information" than the agency had on the recalled vehicles.
Between Jan. 1, 2000 and March 26, 2014, the regulatory agency opened 39 airbag investigations. Of those, 26 were opened with fewer than 10 complaints, and only three involved a death.
“The agency clearly turned a blind eye to the ignition switch defect if it didn’t see a defect trend,” Ditlow said.
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