The Beltway
An occasional column by Gabe Nelson, Automotive News' D.C. correspondent, analyzing the auto industry's relationship with Washington.
GABE NELSON

GM's recall and the watchdog that didn't bark

COMMENTARY
Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.
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Ever since General Motors recalled 1.6 million of its cars globally over a decade-old defect that could cut off engines and deactivate airbags in a crash, the automaker has been pointedly contrite. After all, its slow response may have cost some people their lives.

So why have U.S. regulators been so silent about their own response?

In the 10 years that some of GM's cars were on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration never started an investigation into the defect. That is despite the fact that under U.S. law, automakers have to submit "early warning" reports to NHTSA about potential problems, and GM was seeing warning signs as far back as 2004.

And it's despite the fact that during a March 2007 meeting, agency officials mentioned a fatal crash involving the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, according to a chronology GM submitted to regulators.

The victim from that July 29, 2005, crash was 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose, who struck a tree in Dentsville, Md., going 69 mph in a 25 mph zone, The New York Times reported.

She was legally drunk at the time, but there were also other factors at work: The car's ignition switch had moved out of the "run" position, so the airbags did not deploy, according to an investigator hired by the family.

In the coming months, if GM delivers on its promise to take an "unflinching" look at what went wrong, we will get a better understanding of why it took GM more than eight years to recall the Cobalt and several other models from that time period. But the government, too, will have some tough questions to answer.

NHTSA is supposed to be the people's auto safety watchdog. Why didn't it bark?

So far, at least, the agency isn't giving much of an explanation of what went wrong. Rather than apologizing, as GM did, the agency is essentially saying that it did its best.

"NHTSA constantly monitors a variety of available data and when the agency finds a trend that indicates a vehicle may be an outlier, we take action," an agency spokesman said in a statement. "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."

In fairness, the agency gets more than 40,000 consumer complaints every year. Over the past seven years, its defect investigations have led to 929 recalls affecting more than 55 million cars. So this is hardly a toothless agency.

But critics looking at the long wait on the GM ignition switch are wondering whether it's a sign that federal laws governing auto safety aren't working.

Markey: Make more info public.

Last month, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to NHTSA suggesting that perhaps the public -- including safety advocates and trial lawyers -- should be able to see the same "early warning" reports that NHTSA receives.

"We need to overhaul the early-warning reporting system so that NHTSA is not looking at auto defects through a rear-view mirror," Markey said in a statement. "Mak-ing more information public can help prevent accidents and deadly crashes."

In the eyes of the public, NHTSA's credibility is at stake.

If you recall, the idea of "the dog that didn't bark" comes from a Sherlock Holmes story in which the attentive detective notices that on the night of a murder, the watchdog was oddly silent. From this, he concluded that the killer must have been someone friendly with the dog -- not an unknown intruder.

If NHTSA turns up evidence of wrongdoing by GM and the agency doesn't treat the company accordingly, people will accuse the agency of being too cozy with Detroit's largest automaker. They will contrast the response to the hue and cry that Washington raised during Toyota's unintended-acceleration crisis.

This doesn't mean NHTSA should bark just to prove it is no lap dog. Rather, to preserve its credibility and the integrity of future enforcement actions, the agency must honestly explain what went wrong, even if that means pointing inward at its own failings.

The agency has already started an investigation of the timeliness with which GM acted.

As part of that investigation, NHTSA could explore whether the agency itself could have moved more quickly to catch the defect and save lives.

Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and longtime consumer crusader, is calling for a congressional investigation to figure out why both GM and regulators failed to connect the dots.

A fuller investigation by NHTSA could yield more revelations, she says, "but I don't know if they have the intestinal fortitude to do it."

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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