The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today insisted that his agency lacked enough information to force a recall of faulty General Motors ignition switches before this year, but under heavy criticism from members of a Senate subcommittee he admitted that regulators could have done better.
“There are clearly things, looking back into the history of this, that we need to improve,” NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman said after Sen. Claire McCaskill said the panel was “frustrated” with his repeated excuses.
McCaskill said NHTSA failed to spot the defect even though numerous people outside the agency -- a Wisconsin highway patrolman, crash investigators hired by the agency and individual drivers who had little more than Internet searches to go on -- had tried to bring the problem to its attention.
The exchange occurred hours after a House committee released a report arguing that NHTSA had enough data as far back as 2007 to demand a recall.
“We need some admission here that this was not done right,” said McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s consumer protection subcommittee. “You had citizens who were sleuthing your database on their own. They were going into your database and figuring it out.”
McCaskill and other members of the panel agreed that GM bears most of the responsibility for at least 19 deaths and numerous injuries linked to the defect, but they said NHTSA’s inaction also was troubling.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called it “the NHTSA shrug,” but Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was more disparaging.
“I don’t think it was a shrug,” Blumenthal said. “I don’t think it was a nod. It was a NHTSA snooze. I think NHTSA nodded off on safety.”
Friedman sparred with panel members over whether NHTSA should have interpreted reports of Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions stalling on the road as proof that a recall was needed. He argued that such an event is not always evidence of a safety defect, if the vehicle can be maneuvered safely and restarted, but several senators disagreed.
GM previously held a view similar to Friedman’s, but CEO Mary Barra has reversed course since the recall, telling Congress that the automaker now treats stalling as a defect.
For most of the hearing, Friedman tried to deflect criticism by pointing at GM, which he said withheld critical information and created a culture of “denial and delay that cost lives and endangered the American public.”
The defective switches can too easily slip out of the “run” position, cutting power steering and brake assist, and causing airbags to fail in a crash.
When Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said GM’s failures were “because they were incompetent, not because they were nefarious,” Friedman countered with a different assessment.
“NHTSA was actively trying to find the ball,” Friedman said. “GM was actively trying to hide the ball.”
Friedman on House report
After the hearing, Friedman pushed back against the House committee investigation released earlier Tuesday that said NHTSA had enough information in 2007 to address GM’s defective ignition switch.
“I don’t think we had ample information to determine that there was a defect,” he said, noting that in future defect investigations, NHTSA will “more aggressively” pursue possible defect causes that seem remote at the time.
He also said that after reviewing its handling of GM’s case, it’s unclear that the link between ignition switches and airbag deployment would have been more evident.
“Potentially we would’ve gotten more information, but even there, in 2007, based on our look-back, it is not even clear that GM and the folks we engaged with at GM understood the relationship between the ignition switch and the airbag,” he said. “So it’s possible that we could’ve asked them and they would’ve told us ‘we don’t know’ or ‘no.’”
Friedman said the agency has met recently with senior executives from 12 automakers to underscore the seriousness with which the agency is approaching safety defects and transparency.
Friedman said the meetings, held in a conference room at NHTSA’s Washington, D.C., offices, generally consisted of the agency staff “grilling” auto executives for 90 minutes.
The message? That the record number of U.S. recalls unfolding this year was to be a “new normal,” and that the agency would have a “zero tolerance policy” for automakers that fail to quickly provide defect information and fix defective vehicles.
“There needs to be a new normal in the auto industry in their responsiveness to us,” Friedman said. “In the past we’ve seen spikes in responsiveness and in recalls, only to fade away afterwards. That’s not acceptable and we’re going to make sure that they understand that that is not acceptable.”
McCaskill told reporters after the hearing that she was troubled by Friedman’s answers to questions posed by her and other senators.
She said Friedman came to the hearing more focused on rebutting media reports that have been critical of the agency -- Friedman himself remarked to reporters that he spent much of his testimony rebutting the “misinformation” of recent news reports -- than accepting responsibility for the agency’s shortcomings in the GM case.
“You could tell from my line of questioning that I was troubled by his refusal to take responsibility, by his refusal to acknowledge the shortcomings that clearly occurred in terms of how they handled the GM safety defect,” McCaskill said. “He was more focused on trying to rebut a news article than he was on trying to take responsibility for the problems his agency had. That was troubling to me.”