House report, citing 'critical mistakes,' blasts NHTSA
Inquiry finds safety agency plagued by same problems as GM; Democrats criticize report
WASHINGTON -- Federal auto safety regulators failed to detect General Motors’ defective ignition switches despite having “ample information” about the problem as early as 2007, according to a House committee investigation into the GM recalls and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released today.
The report identified several shortcomings at NHTSA that allowed GM’s defective ignition switches, which have been linked to at least 19 deaths, to “fester unresolved for over a decade,” a statement from the House Energy and Commerce Committee said.
The investigation found that NHTSA made “critical mistakes” and missed several opportunities to identify the defective switches, including a Wisconsin state trooper’s report from 2007 that pointed to the ignition switch as a likely cause of a Chevrolet Cobalt crash that killed two teenagers and severely injured another. The report also said NHTSA conducted three independent investigations into Cobalt crashes in which front airbags failed to deploy, but still failed to identify the defective ignition switches.
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee, said in a statement that NHTSA was “plagued” by some of the same “pervasive” problems that caused GM to fail to identify the defective switches.
“NHTSA, too, suffered from a lack of accountability, poor information sharing, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the vehicles, all which contributed to the failure to identify and fix this deadly defect,” Murphy said. “Both GM and NHTSA had a responsibility to act, and both share culpability in this safety failure. While NHTSA now complains about GM’s switch, it seems NHTSA was asleep at the switch too.”
In a statement today, NHTSA defended its handling of the matter, instead blaming GM for thwarting efforts to uncover the defect sooner.
“The agency looked into this issue not once, but twice, including sending investigators to examine several crashes in person, but GM withheld information and hindered NHTSA’s efforts every step of the way, including changing a defective part without informing the agency, which caused the number of complaints to decrease, skewing the data when the agency reviewed the issue a second time,” NHTSA said.
“This report ignores the role that GM played in hiding information from NHTSA. In addition, many of the issues identified in the report have already been identified and addressed by NHTSA.”
Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of Colorado and Diana DeGette of Colorado of the House committee criticized the report, authored by Republican leadership, as glossing over GM’s missteps.
"NHTSA has rightly been criticized for these missed opportunities," Waxman, the committee’s ranking minority member, and DeGette said in a statement. "But the report almost completely ignores the role played by GM. GM had the same information as NHTSA -- but also knew much, much more.
"GM allowed the defective switch to be installed in these vehicles; for over a decade, the company had the opportunity and responsibility to take action to fix this deadly problem -- yet failed to do so. The fault here lies squarely with GM."
Operating in silos
The scathing House committee report found a series of institutional flaws at the nation’s auto safety watchdog that it says contributed to its failure to identify GM’s defective switches.
NHTSA was found to operate in “silos,” blocking the sharing of information. The regulator failed to keep pace with industry technology and failed to understand advanced vehicle systems installed in cars in response to NHTSA’s own regulations, the report said.
NHTSA also suffered from a “culture that minimizes accountability, and a tendency to get overwhelmed or distracted by specific issues,” according to the report.
The report emerged on the same day that David Friedman, NHTSA’s deputy administrator, was testifying before a Senate subcommittee about the agency’s role in the GM recalls and its broader oversight capability. The agency has come under more fire since The New York Times reported Sunday that NHTSA was slow to respond to several deadly vehicle defects during the past decade, including GM’s ignition switches, faulty airbags from supplier Takata and others.
Senators at today’s hearing pressed NHTSA for answers on why it failed to take stronger action in these high-profile defect cases and explore reforms at the agency to be included in a long-term surface transportation funding bill.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement that lawmakers will continue to push for answers and look for solutions to prevent similar failures in the future.
“It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn’t identify the warnings. NHTSA exists not just to process what the company finds, but to dig deeper. They failed,” Upton said in the statement. “We’ll keep looking for answers, and keep working toward solutions -- whether it means changing our laws or pressing for change at the companies that follow them and the agencies that enforce them -- but we know for sure that NHTSA was part of the problem and is going to have to be part of the solution.”
No evidence of change
While GM has made sweeping internal changes in how it handles potential safety defects in response to the ignition switch crisis, NHTSA has yet to make any internal changes or hold personnel accountable for its mistakes, the report said.
“Five months later, there is no evidence, at least publicly, that anything has changed at the agency,” the report said. “No one has been held accountable and no substantial changes have been made. NHTSA and its employees admit they made mistakes but the lack of urgency in identifying and resolving those shortcomings raises questions about the agency’s commitment to learning from this recall.”
One controversial issued highlighted by The New York Times was a NHTSA policy that made it optional for automakers to describe the potential cause of a fatal crash. Now, the agency says, such descriptions are mandatory.
In some cases, GM withheld information from NHTSA about crashes it believed to have been linked to the ignition switch because NHTSA policy allowed automakers to do so. Since 2006, NHTSA requests for details about fatal crashes involving an alleged defect -- known as “death inquiries” -- have asked automakers to share their assessment of the circumstances that led to each crash “at your option.”
NHTSA says it decided to change that policy in July, making the question mandatory starting in the next round of death inquiries that go out.
“Under the Bush administration, in 2006, the decision was made to make the question optional in the hopes of getting better information from automakers,” the agency told Automotive News. “However, we have seen this has not been the case, which is why in light of the GM ignition recall, we began to change the policy. However, NHTSA could always compel answers using its regular defect investigation authority.”
In 2005 and 2006, NHTSA asked GM to share its assessment of two crashes involving 2004 Saturn Ions that are among those now connected to the ignition switch defect. GM said it had not conducted such evaluations and cited attorney-client confidentiality in withholding other details. But GM’s internal investigation, conducted by former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas, found that in both cases, GM engineers had investigated and determined the airbags should have deployed.
GM faces numerous investigations about the recall in Congress, multiple states and the U.S. Department of Justice. The Department of Transportation’s inspector general is also investigating NHTSA’s handling of the recall.
Nick Bunkley contributed to this report.
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