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.