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From Products Liability Law Daily, September 16, 2014

House Energy and Commerce Committee report details NHTSA failures in GM ignition switch recal

By Joe Bichl

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has released a new report on its investigation into the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) role in the delay of the General Motors (GM) ignition switch recall. The report, called the Staff Report on the GM Ignition Switch Recall: Review of NHTSA, written as part of The Oversight Series: Accountability to the American People, identified certain failures and missed opportunities by NHTSA in analyzing and responding to data provided to the agency, which contributed to NHTSA’s inability to identify the safety defect.

Committee report’s findings. The committee opened an investigation into the actions of both GM and NHTSA following the initial recall of certain Chevrolet Cobalt models where the weight on the key ring and/or road conditions or some other jarring event could knock the ignition switch out of the “run” position, turning off the engine. If the key were not in the run position, the air bags may not deploy if the vehicle were involved in a crash, increasing the risk of injury. The committee’s investigation, along with GM’s internal investigation conducted by Anton Valukas, revealed a “series of failures by the company to identify and remedy this defect, which contributed to tragic injuries and the loss of life,” the report said. But the committee’s investigation also uncovered failures and critical mistakes by NHTSA.

The report showed that NHTSA had “ample information” to identify a potential safety defect as early as 2007, including a State Trooper report that linked air bags and the ignition switch involving the non-deployment of frontal air bags in the Cobalt. The committee report charged that NHTSA “failed to follow up on the information it was provided and also lacked an understanding of the advanced vehicle systems that were implemented in response to the agency’s own standards.”

Similar to the problems in GM’s corporate culture that led to the company’s series of failures in identifying and acting on the defect, the committee identified key areas in NHTSA’s own practices that kept the agency from finding the same defect, including a failure “to keep pace with the industry it regulates, information silos, a culture that minimizes accountability, and a tendency to get overwhelmed or distracted by specific issues.”

The report stated that GM has taken certain steps to fix its mistakes. However, it determined that, by all current appearances, NHTSA has not done the same. The report noted “five months later, there is no evidence, at least publicly, that anything has changed at the agency. 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.”

The committee’s report concluded, “The agency’s repeated failure to identify, let alone explore, the potential defect theory related to the ignition switch—even after it was spelled out in a report the agency commissioned—is inexcusable. This was compounded by NHTSA staff’s lack of knowledge and awareness regarding the evolution of vehicle safety systems they regulate. Regulators should not be held to a different standard. NHTSA’s conduct needs to reflect its mission and serve as a model to those it regulates. The agency, therefore, must be willing to hold itself accountable and learn from past mistakes.”

Congressional reaction. In an Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee news release, Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) said that the investigation helped expose the failures that led to a “colossal safety breakdown.” He also claimed that the report showed that certain problems that the subcommittee found within GM were the same problems that “plagued” the government regulator.

“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. 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,” Murphy said.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) called NHTSA’s reaction “tragic,” in that certain 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. 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,” Upton said.

MainStory: TopStory NHTSANewsStory ProductRecallsNews MotorVehiclesNews

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