Cobalt risks 'did not stand out,' NHTSA chief tells lawmakers

“When the team did that comparison, the Cobalt did not stand out,” Friedman said Tuesday. “It was a little bit above average, but other vehicles were higher.” Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

UPDATED: 4/1/14 7:04 pm ET

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration twice decided not to investigate crashes involving Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions because its staff calculated that the rate of injuries was not significantly higher than for other cars, the agency’s acting chief told members of Congress Tuesday.

During a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight panel, David Friedman said the regulatory agency decides when to open investigations in part by comparing the number of crashes in which occupants were hurt with how many of the affected vehicles are on the road, and how old they are.

“When the team did that comparison, the Cobalt did not stand out,” Friedman said. “It was a little bit above average, but other vehicles were higher.”

Friedman said NHTSA was missing three key pieces of information -- which he said General Motors provided when it initiated the recall in February -- that prevented the agency from identifying a defect in the cars’ ignition switches sooner:

  • The fact that GM changed the design of the ignition switch in 2006.
  • Conversations that GM had with suppliers about algorithms related to airbag deployment.
  • A direct link between the cars’ ignition switches and the ability of their airbags to deploy.

He said the lack of that information contributed to decisions in 2007 and 2010 not to go forward with internal agency proposals to investigate airbag issues in the Cobalt and Ion. About half of proposals to open investigations are approved, and the other half result in no further action, Friedman said.

“If we had any of those pieces of information I truly believe it would have changed how we handled this,” he said.

Friedman said the circumstances of the crashes GM has now linked to the defect are “complicated.” Many of them involved unbelted drivers and passengers, several of the drivers were legally drunk, and the crashes mostly happened after cars drove off the road into terrain where Friedman said it can be difficult to determine whether the airbags should have deployed.

“I wish these crashes were as simple as they appear to be,” Friedman said. “I wish the connection was as direct as we now know it is.”

Friedman said he didn’t know how much information NHTSA had asked GM for related to the crashes. He said NHTSA may explore having more detailed conversations with automakers before a formal investigation is opened.

He also said NHTSA staffers, based on the agency’s past experience and information available from GM at the time, operated with the understanding that an ignition switch turning off wouldn’t prevent airbag deployment.

Many of the committee members appeared less than satisfied with the explanation of why NHTSA didn’t probe injury and crash reports further.

“It appears we have a flaw in NHTSA’s decision-making process,” said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., noting that NHTSA is “short-staffed and underfunded.”

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said crash investigations commissioned by NHTSA in 2005 and 2009 showing that the airbags failed to deploy should have raised more concern at the agency. He pointed to a 2012 investigation of some Hyundai models, which led to the recall of 190,000 vehicles last year, stemming from just one complaint.

Friedman responded that it’s easier for NHTSA to take action in cases where a defect is more obvious than it was in the GM cars.

“All it takes is one,” he said, “if that’s clear.”

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