Wednesday, September 17, 2014
How the nation's auto safety regulators fell asleep at the wheel
Three months ago, General Motors released a scathing internal report about its failures to spot a potentially lethal defect in millions of its vehicles, blaming a culture of denial, inertia and incompetence.
Today, a U.S. House committee released its scathing report on the failures of the nation's auto safety agency to spot potentially lethal defects in millions of vehicles — also blaming a culture of denial, inertia and incompetence.
Whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will be willing to confront its failures in the Chevy Cobalt ignition defects linked to more than 13 deaths will be the focus of a Senate hearing today. But NHTSA's own defects in turning consumer complaints into recalls of dangerous vehicles have been known and discussed for more than a decade, without much sign of repair.
There's no better example of how badly NHTSA failed to understand the problems in the Cobalt case — where the cars could shut off without warning, disarming the air bags — than the example citied by the Republican staff of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee of a October 2006 crash in Wisconsin that killed two teen-agers.
Using nothing more than a government-issued laptop, Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper Keith Young examined data from the car, a dealer bulletin GM had issued warning of ignitions shutting off and reported in February 2007 that because the key had been bumped into the "accessory" position, the Cobalt's air bags had failed to deploy.
GM's own report found that Young's report wasn't looked at or understood until earlier this year. The House committee found that NHTSA read and comprehended Young's analysis — yet failed to launch a formal investigation that could have sparked a recall as early as 2007 and saved untold lives.
NHTSA "lacked the focus and rigor expected of a federal safety regulator," the committee said. "The agency’s repeated failure to identify, let alone explore, the potential defect theory related to the ignition switch...is inexcusable."
To date, NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman — who was appointed in May 2013 — has contended that it was GM's failures to share information, rather than any intrinsic flaw at NHTSA, which led to the Cobalt and other defects being overlooked. In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Friedman said NHTSA has a new program of "unprecedented oversight" with GM and other automakers.
"We're setting a system up where the minute they sneeze about a safety issue, we're able to be aware of it and make sure we understand how they're dealing with it," he said.
But the GM recall isn't the first time NHTSA has been found wanting in its pursuit of defect cases. As far back as 2002, the agency came under investigation in the wake of the Ford-Firestone tire rollover cases for not being able to consistently spot problems in the firehose of data it collects — not just thousands of consumer complaints, but information from automakers about accidents, overseas recalls and lawsuits.
Since then, little has changed. The agency's Office of Defect Investigations receives about 1 percent of its overall annual budget, and its 50-odd staff must oversee some 200 million vehicles on U.S. roads — including newer models with advanced technology that the House committee found agency employees ill-equipped to grasp. NHTSA has never set hard, public rules for when it opens a defect probe, saying it needed freedom to pursue potential hazards even if it only affected a handful of vehicles.
Yet the agency keeps most of its processes secret, and never explains when, as with the Cobalt case, it looks at a problem and decides not to investigate.
While NHTSA has cracked down in a few instances over the past several years — notably with Toyota in the pedal-entrapment defect — it rarely threatens to use its power of ordering recalls; nearly all are done by automakers voluntarily, with some "influenced" by NHTSA defect probes.
And when NHTSA can't decide on an answer — as it hasn't with the case of rusted brake lines in GM pickups, a probe that's been open but not resolved since March 2010 — consumers are left to argue their cases one by one with dealers and automakers.
Congress has several bills under consideration that would bolster NHTSA's resources and the penalties it could impose on automakers for failing to share information. But as the House report shows, NHTSA's most urgent repair will be simply matching the curiosity of a single state trooper with a laptop and unanswered questions.
At the hearing, Friedman again defended the agency, objecting to pointed questions from senators that NHTSA accept some level of blame.
"Why you can’t take a measure of responsibility for this has us all scratching our heads," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "We need some admission here that this was not done right...We’ve all said shame on GM...But you have got to take some responsibility that this is not being handled correctly."
"There are clearly things looking back at the history of this that we need to improve," Friedman said.