DOT's Foxx seeks probe into NHTSA's handling of GM defect

DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx has called for an inquiry led by Calvin Scovel, the DOT's inspector general.
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WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has asked the agency’s internal watchdog to investigate whether federal auto safety officials properly looked into complaints about the 1.6 million cars that GM recalled in February for defective ignition switches.

GM has linked at least 31 crashes and 12 front-seat fatalities to the faulty switch, which can be knocked out of position, cutting power to the engine and airbags.

Despite having records of these fatal crashes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration never started a defect investigation prior to GM’s recall -- a failure that has drawn scrutiny from auto safety advocates and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

NHTSA has begun an internal “due diligence review.” But now Foxx has called for an inquiry led by Calvin Scovel, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general.

“In response to various questions raised by members of Congress, the Department of Transportation asked our Inspector General’s office to conduct an audit to provide a single, comprehensive review of NHTSA’s work in this case,” NHTSA said in a statement. “In the meantime, we remain focused on ensuring GM addresses its recall as quickly as possible for consumers and continuing our own aggressive investigation regarding the timing of their recall.”

GM recalled 1.62 million cars in February, including now-discontinued models like the Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5 and Saturn Ion, to replace the ignition switches.

The company’s CEO, Mary Barra, will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on April 1, as will David Friedman, NHTSA’s acting administrator. Both will be under intense pressure to explain why the cars, sold as far back as model year 2003, were not recalled for more than a decade despite GM conceding that it saw signs of problems with the ignition switch as far back as 2001.

“We need to know why it took so long to connect the dots,” Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement Tuesday.

Foxx’s request said the audit is intended to “ensure that DOT and NHTSA have a full understanding of the facts regarding the GM recall and can take corrective actions to enhance NHTSA’s safety function to the extent necessary and appropriate.”

The Detroit News reported on the request earlier Friday.

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

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