At GM hearing, attention turns to feds: What did NHTSA know?

At a hearing Wednesday, senators asked why the NHTSA – the federal agency that oversees vehicle recalls – didn't act more quickly in the GM case.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
David Friedman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, testifies at a House hearing in Washington Tuesday on the GM recall. He also testified before the Senate Wednesday.

In House and Senate hearings this week, General Motors CEO Mary Barra faced heated questions from lawmakers trying to get to the heart of why the Detroit automaker waited more than 10 years to recall millions of vehicles linked to a defective ignition switch, and whether or not top company officials were cutting costs at the expense of public safety.

But on Wednesday, some of the scrutiny turned to federal regulators, whom investigators have suggested were also negligent in failing to sound alarms and act more quickly.

“Federal agencies have a share of the blame in this,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) of Connecticut in his questioning of Ms. Barra.

Critics have said that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is in disarray. It “has fallen into a bureaucratic quagmire that it uses to avoid opening investigations and determining safety defects while people are dying  unnecessarily on the highway,” Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, told USA Today Monday.

But Acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman largely defended his agency’s role in dealing with complaints about GM vehicles, particularly those connected to four fatal crashes involving the Chevrolet Cobalt. The Cobalt is one of the many vehicles GM is now recalling due to a defective ignition switch.

Like Barra, Mr. Friedman came to his job after the events at the center of the investigation transpired. Barra and Mr. Friedman both came to their current posts in January.

At the hearing, Friedman blamed GM for failing to provide “critical information that would have helped identify this defect.” This lack of information, he said, prevented his agency from connecting the airbag malfunctions with the faulty part.

For example, GM data did not show that its vehicles had crash rates that were significantly higher than similar vehicles. GM data also did not specify whether passengers were wearing seat belts, which would have been important in determining whether faulty air bags played a role.

Later investigations showed airbags were not deployed because of the faulty ignition switches, which randomly shut down power to the car, including the airbags.

However, “the data available at the time of this evaluation did not indicate a safety defect or defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation,” Friedman said.

Internal memos from 2007 show that a senior NHTSA investigator sought to open an investigation into the fatalities related to the Cobalt but was denied.

GM says that at least 13 deaths are connected to the recalled vehicles. The Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group in Washington, says that the tally is much higher – 303 deaths. More than two million vehicles have been recalled worldwide.

Friedman said he has confidence in the agency, which looks into complaints that lead to roughly nine million recalled vehicles annually.

“We believe our defects-investigation program and recalls process has functioned extremely well over the years in identifying defects that create unreasonable risks and ensuring that recalls occur whenever appropriate. Even so, we continually seek ways to improve,” he said.

Lawmakers said they planned to hold future hearings to question key figures from both GM and the NHTSA. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota asked whether the NHTSA had “technical expertise” to deal with the complaints regarding the fatal crashes. “What could the NHTSA have done differently as it was receiving complaints over this long period of time?” she asked.

Calvin Scovell, inspector general for the US Transportation Department, said he will launch an audit into the agency’s handling of GM complaints.

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