The nation’s chief highway traffic safety regulator will blame General Motors’ decade of silence about an ignition switch defect and related air bag deployment problems that contributed to at least a dozen fatalities for his agency’s failure to demand a recall – something he says his agency would have acted on had GM been more forthcoming.
In a hearing before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee investigating GM’s controversial recall of 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and five other models on Tuesday, David Friedman will say that NHTSA would have done more if it had been fully advised about the extent of the problem.
“When data available to NHTSA reveals a basis to investigate a potential risk to motor vehicle safety the agency takes decisive action,” Friedman, NHTSA’s acting head will say tomorrow in prepared testimony. “Had the information newly provided to NHTSA by GM been available before now, it would have better informed the agency’s prior reviews of airbag non-deployment in GM vehicles and likely would have changed NHTSA’s approach to this issue.”
NHTSA is under growing criticism for failing to step in, order a major investigation, and recall despite mounting evidence over the years that the faulty ignition was responsible for numerous deaths and accidents.
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. 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.
Federal regulators decided against opening an inquiry on the ignitions of the Cobalt, Pontiac G5s and other compact cars even after their owns investigators reported in 2007 that they knew of four fatal crashes, 29 complaints and 14 other reports that showed the defect disabled air bags, according to a memo released by the House committee over the weekend.
Three years later, the safety agency came to the same decision after receiving more reports that air bags were not deploying.
Friedman will argue that two of the Special Crash Investigations used in making the 2007 determination not to expand the probe revealed that some of the passengers were not wearing seat belts at the time of the accidents and that may have prevented the deployment of air bags.
“These situations, where unrestrained occupants may be out of position, are instances where airbags are less likely to deploy because doing so may harm the occupants,” Friedman says in his prepared testimony.
Friedman is scheduled to testify jointly with Mary T. Barra, the newly appointed CEO of GM in the first of two days of congressional hearings into why GM and the regulators waited more than a decade to conclude the problems with the cars and related deaths were sufficient to order a recall.
Barra, a veteran GM official who was promoted to the top job about two months ago, will testify that she knew nothing about the extent of the problem, but will vow to find the underlying cause of the tragic mystery.
“More than a decade ago, GM embarked on a small car program,” she will say in her prepared testimony. “Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program, but I can tell you that we will find out.”
Barra has taken the lead in GM’s effort to recall and repair nearly three million recalled cars, wage a public relations offensive to try to mitigate the damage to the automaker’s reputation and respond to questions from federal prosecutors, NHTSA investigators and House and Senate committee staff.
“When we have answers, we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators, and with our customers,” Barra says in her prepared testimony. “As soon as l learned about the problem, we acted without hesitation. We told the world we had a problem that needed to be fixed. We did so because whatever mistakes were made in the past, we will not shirk.
Meanwhile, GM on Monday said it is recalling an additional 1.5 million vehicles worldwide because the electronic power-steering assist can suddenly stop working, making them harder to steer. The new recall brings to 6.3 million the number of vehicles GM has recalled since February. The initial recall for the ignition switch problem — prompted the automaker to name a new safety chief and speed up the review of cases that might lead to recalls.
Friedman was named acting administrator of NHTSA in January. He joined the agency in May of 2013, after a 12-year career as an engineer and executive with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“We are not aware of any information to suggest that NHTSA failed to properly carry out its safety mission based on the data available to it and the process it followed,” Friedman said.
Despite multiple examinations of evidence, he said, NHTSA staff “did not find sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect trend that would warrant opening a formal investigation. This was a difficult case pursued by experts in the field of screening, investigations and technology involving airbags that are designed to deploy in some cases but not others. GM had critical information that would have helped identify this defect.”
Committee members may well home in on Friedman’s admission that NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation made its determination not to open a formal investigation into the ignition switch issue in 2008 despite the fact that a key report on one of the crashes in question was incomplete. The preliminary report blamed the nature of the impact for the non-deployment of the airbag, but the final report determined that the ignition switch had been turned “prior to impact” and “removed any conclusion” as to whether the nature of the impact or the loss of power due to the ignition being turned off was the cause of the non-deployment.
Friedman’s testimony discloses that NHTSA, in part because of information supplied by the automaker, knew of at least 43 crashes involving the GM Cobalt and Ion models in which the airbags may have failed to deploy.
Friedman said that when it was analyzed, “the available data did not indicate that the Cobalt or Ion were overrepresented compared to other peer vehicles with respect to injury-crash incident rates. Moreover, the crash data available to NHTSA included incidents involving unbelted occupants and off-road, long-duration events, where it could not be determined that the air bag should have deployed.”
However, as The Fiscal Times has reported, NHTSA has opened formal investigations on far less evidence than it had in the case of the GM ignition switch. In some cases, as little as a single complaint has been enough to pull hundreds of thousands of cars off the road.
In the end, Friedman’s testimony lays the blame for the failure to act sooner squarely at the feet of GM.
“In February 2014, GM submitted information to NHTSA that, for the first time, acknowledged a link between the ignition switch to the airbag non-deployment, as well as key information regarding parts changes, discussions with suppliers, and other efforts currently under consideration in our Timeliness Query. Whether lawmakers will agree is an open question. At least some in Congress are clearly eyeing NHTSA as being, at least partly to blame.
Last week, Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey released a bill to require the agency to collect more information on vehicle safety. “A massive information breakdown at NHTSA has led to deadly vehicle breakdowns on our roads,” Markey said in a statement.
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