NHTSA lawyer calls engineers 'first line of defense' for car safety

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DETROIT -- The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s top lawyer told a gathering of automotive engineers today that they were the “first line of defense” in vehicle safety.

Kevin Vincent, speaking at the SAE World Congress here, said vehicle manufacturers are responsible for detecting and reporting any defects, as is NHTSA, but engineers need to be on the lookout as well and report any flaws they find.

“The message I have delivered to senior lawyers at the automakers is that they need to have practices and procedures in place so that when they find a problem, they will respond,” Vincent said.

Vincent reiterated that while his agency does investigate possible defects, it is the car manufacturers’ responsibility to find and report defects, or “we will hold a company accountable.” Vincent left immediately after delivering his prepared remarks without taking further questions.

Noted consumer advocate Ralph Nader last week said there should be an independent ombudsman to whom automotive engineers could report company cover-ups of defective parts without risk of retaliation.

David Friedman, NHTSA’s acting administrator, was criticized last week in Congress on the agency’s handling of its investigation of faulty General Motors vehicles that resulted in at least 13 deaths. Internal documents show that some GM engineers knew of a defect with the ignition switch in small cars at least 10 years ago but the company failed to issue a recall.

Friedman said NHTSA is seeking details on 98 legal claims against GM related to the ignition defect. Under questioning, he said the agency can issue subpoenas to learn more about such cases but cannot access sealed information about confidential settlements GM reached with crash victims and their families.

GM says it will be shipping parts to dealers this week to begin repairs to the 2.6 million GM vehicles affected by the recall.

You can reach Sean Gagnier at sgagnier@crain.com.

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