One of the most charitable things that’s been said so far about the culpability of General Motors and federal regulators in the unfolding recall scandal is that the two entities “failed to connect the dots” until recently.
Despite mounting evidence that something was radically wrong with potentially thousands of cars, it took the auto manufacturer and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) more than a decade to acknowledge that a faulty ignition switch and related airbag problems had contributed to over a dozen deaths in crashes involving the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts, the 2007 Pontiac G5s and four other GM models.
“The problems persisted over a decade, the red flags were many, and yet those responsible failed to connect the dots,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) said on Sunday with the release of a committee memo of preliminary findings in advance of House and Senate hearings that begin on Tuesday. But a more accurate and troubling conclusion is that GM and NHTSA officials engaged in a conspiracy of silence that threatened the lives of millions of drivers, even while the company and regulators opened investigations and issued recalls for other models on the basis of far less damning evidence.
“The agency clearly turned a blind eye to the ignition switch defect if it didn’t see a defect trend,” Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center on Auto Safety, a watchdog group, said recently.
As early as 2001, GM became aware in the pre-production stage of the 2003 Saturn Ion that the ignition switch, if jostled, could shift from “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.
But GM waited until last month to begin recalling nearly 2.6 million cars that have been linked to 13 deaths. An independent study by the Center on Auto Safety concluded that at least 303 car fatalities were related to a failure of the airbags to deploy in the Cobalts and Pontiacs.
Over the weekend, GM once again apologized for the auto safety crisis and pledged to fully cooperate with Congress and federal investigators and regulators. Mary T. Barra, the new CEO of General Motors, is scheduled to testify before an Energy and Commerce subcommittee tomorrow morning.
Meanwhile, NHTSA repeated its refrain that “the agency reviewed data from a number of sources in 2007, but the data we had available at the time did not warrant a formal investigation.” David J. Friedman, NHTSA’s acting administrator, is expected to make a similar claim when he testifies along with Barra tomorrow.
But the agency’s defense is contradicted by information released over the weekend by the Energy and Commerce subcommittee and media reports showing that there had been ample evidence of a dangerous trend over the years.
Among those findings:
--NHTSA decided not to open an inquiry on the ignition and airbag problem with the Cobalts and other cars even after their own investigators reported in 2007 that they knew of four fatal crashes, 29 complaints and 14 other reports that showed the ignition switch problem disabled airbags.
In a presentation dated Nov. 17, 2007, NHTSA’s investigators reported to their Office of Defects Investigations on the fatal crashes, as well as a broad range of complaints and other reports about cars shutting off. “The panel did not identify any discernible trend and decided not to pursue a more formal investigation,” according to the House subcommittee memo.
In 2010, NHTA officials again considered data on whether the Cobalt had a problem with malfunctioning airbags but again concluded that there was no trend.
--GM approved the design of the faulty ignition switches for its cars in 2002, despite receiving a warning from the manufacturer of the switches, Delphi Automotive, that the switches did not meet GM’s own specifications. Delphi disclosed this fact to congressional investigators last week.
--After considering a number of fixes to the ignition problem in March 2005, GM engineers determined that “none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case.” But the House subcommittee memo said that none of the submitted documents explain the criteria for what would have prompted GM to initiative a recall.
--GM and Delphi quietly changed the faulty switch sometime in 2006 or early 2007, making it less likely that an unsuspecting driver could bump the ignition key and cause the car to cut off engine power and deactivate its air bags, The New York Times reported on Saturday. It took the work of a private engineer, Mark Hood, who was investigating a fatal accident in 2010 in Georgia, to ferret out the deception. The change was made so quietly that GM hired outside consultants last year to help identify which Cobalt model years contained the original switch, according to The Times.
--In March 2007 NHTSA and GM officials met to discuss occupant restraint systems. According to GM’s February 24 chronology of events, a NHTSA representative informed GM about a July 29, 2005, fatal crash in Maryland involving a Cobalt. After the meeting, GM began tracking front impact crashes involving Cobalts where the airbags did not deploy in order to track similarities – but did not seek a full-blown investigation.
GM identified 10 incidents by the end of 2007. In four cases the ignition had moved into the “accessory” position. Comparable information was unavailable for the Saturn Ion because the sensors installed in those vehicles did not record whether the engine was running.
--While lawmakers have yet to determine why GM sat on this problem for so many years, an analysis by The Washington Post over the weekend pointed to a corporate culture reluctant to pass along bad news. “When GM was struggling to cut costs and buff its image, a recall of its popular small cars would have been a terrible setback,” The Post reported. “By the time GM engineers began to face up to the potential gravity of the defect, the Great Recession had hit and the company was begging Congress for a taxpayer bailout that would become its financial lifeline.”
The House committee staff has been poring over 20,000 pages of documents provided by GM and 6,000 pages of material from NHTSA in the run-up to the hearings.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), the chairman of the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee that will be conducting tomorrow’s hearing, said, “Although we have had the documents for less than a week, they paint an unsettling picture.”
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