GM recall may have begun sooner with more data, NHTSA head says

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WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- U.S. auto-safety regulators didn’t force General Motors Co. to recall 1.6 million cars sooner because the connection between defective ignition switches and failing airbags wasn’t clear, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

“If we had that information, if GM had provided us with timely information, we would have been able to take a different course with this,” David Friedman, acting administrator for NHTSA, said in an interview today in Washington.

GM is facing a federal criminal probe and inquiries from NHTSA and both chambers of Congress as to why it didn’t act sooner to recall the Chevrolet Cobalt and five other cars over the switch defect now linked to 12 crash deaths. A timeline GM gave regulators last month shows it began investigating complaints about the switch in 2004.

NHTSA has come under criticism by auto-safety advocates for not following up more aggressively when it raised the ignition-switch issue with GM executives at a meeting in 2007. The agency never started a defect investigation, a step that can lead to a recall.

“We took several efforts to look into this data,” Friedman said. “At the end of the day, with the data we had at that time, we didn’t think that was sufficient to open up a formal investigation.”

Friedman said NHTSA did three crash investigations, two of which were previously disclosed, to better understand what was happening in instances in which Cobalt airbags didn’t deploy.

2006 probe

“We are fully cooperating with NHTSA, and we welcome the opportunity to help the agency have a full understanding of the facts,” GM spokesman Greg Martin said.

NHTSA looked into complaints that came into the agency to try to understand how much the Cobalt stood out with peers in respect to airbag failures, Friedman said. The agency received 260 complaints related to the switches, according to the New York Times.

GM recalled the vehicles when it got new information making a direct connection between the ignition-switch failures, which had been known for almost a decade, and airbags not going off, Friedman said.

NHTSA sent investigators to document a high-speed Cobalt crash in Wisconsin in 2006 that killed two women in which the engine cut off and airbags didn’t deploy. The team identified a failure similar to one cited by GM in the recall.

Outside investigators hired by NHTSA at that time found six similar complaints in agency databases and a GM technical service bulletin to dealers acknowledging a faulty switch design and offering free repairs to customers who complained.

Former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook asked the Transportation Department’s inspector general to investigate whether the agency failed to meet its legal obligations.

The agency “obviously failed to carry out its responsibilities in this case,” Claybrook wrote in a March 7 letter. “No one is evaluating why NHTSA failed to carry out the law.”

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