WASHINGTON -- David Friedman, the acting administrator of NHTSA, has suggested publicly that if General Motors had supplied more information, the agency might have discovered GM's defective ignition switch sooner. But the agency may have been so consumed with resolving an old safety crisis -- children being killed by airbags -- that it missed a new one.
When the Saturn Ion and Chevrolet Cobalt went on sale in the early 2000s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was still struggling with how to protect children sitting in the front seat from overpowered airbags. It commissioned a major campaign of "special crash investigations" to study airbag performance, and GM's early foray into a new generation of airbags provided a wealth of data for analysis.
These inquiries delivered many of the clues pointing to a glitch in GM's ignition switch, a review of NHTSA documents shows. One investigation report, delivered in April 2007, noted that the airbag didn't deploy in a Wisconsin crash of a 2005 Cobalt. It also noted that the ignition was in "accessory" position and the engine at zero rpms before impact, suggesting that it had stalled or had been turned off.
"It's not known what role, if any, this may have played in the nondeployment of the airbags," the outside investigators hired by NHTSA wrote about the ignition finding, saying the question "was beyond the scope of this investigation."
Yet the agency didn't pick up on that potential link.
In a filing with NHTSA last month, GM disclosed a March 2007 meeting in which NHTSA officials asked about a different crash investigation. That report on a July 2005 crash in Maryland noted that airbags also didn't deploy and the ignition was in the accessory position, but the report didn't raise the issue of a link between the two.
GM didn't disclose any further communication with NHTSA. The report on the Wisconsin crash arrived the next month.
The clues that emerged in 2007 from the Wisconsin crash investigation later became bedrock evidence in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Brooke Melton, a 29-year-old nurse who died in 2010 in a defective Cobalt.
"In 2007, [NHTSA] should have connected all of the dots and approached GM as to why this happened," Lance Cooper, a Georgia lawyer who represents Melton's estate, said in an interview. "If they would have done that, they would have discovered what we discovered in the Melton case: that there was a longstanding problem with the key system. Unfortunately they didn't go down this road."
The connection wasn't entirely obvious. Airbags use sensitive algorithms along with their sensors to ensure that they deploy only in real crashes. There are many reasons why they might not deploy.
NHTSA also didn't know that GM had changed the ignition switch the previous year but had not changed the part number. A new part number likely would have sent up red flags at the agency.
The intense interest in special crash investigations for airbags was the result of a series of grisly and tragic accidents in the 1990s, including a fender-bender in Idaho in which a deployed airbag decapitated a 1-year-old girl.
Parents were advised to put their children in the back seat. To protect those children who were placed in the front seat, NHTSA put out rules in 2000 requiring "smart" airbags, which use a sensor to detect the weight of the front-seat passenger.
At that time, GM was eager to establish a reputation for safety. When the mandate was written into law in 2000, it raced ahead. By early 2003, seven of the nine U.S. nameplates with smart airbags were GM products.
This speedy rollout put GM under a magnifying glass. NHTSA commissioned 189 special crash investigations from 2000 through 2008 to see whether these smart airbags were working. Agency records show that 97 of these investigations, more than half of the total, involved GM vehicles.
NHTSA was looking for crashes in which airbags didn't deploy, as well as crashes in which they did. The goal was to assess "real world" performance, Chip Chidester, then the chief of NHTSA's crash investigations division, said at a Washington presentation in 2004.
Chidester's presentation says the agency wanted to spot "unusual circumstances" that might allow for "early identification of potential problems."
Unusual circumstances soon would appear in some crashes involving GM vehicles. NHTSA commissioned three crash investigations from 2005 to 2007 involving two Cobalts and one Ion in which airbags hadn't deployed and passengers died.
That includes the Maryland and Wisconsin crashes, both of which now are known to have involved a faulty ignition switch.
"Our results were inconclusive," the agency said in a statement to Automotive News, when asked about these three reports. "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. New information provided by GM has prompted NHTSA to launch an aggressive investigation into the timing of their recall."
Cooper says NHTSA had enough clues before the new information from GM to at least keep the investigations open.
"To make the argument that GM wasn't forthcoming is true. They weren't," he said. "The problem for NHTSA is the information they got from this other source -- the crash investigations -- should have led them to continue looking."
You can reach Gabe Nelson at email@example.com