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From Products Liability Law Daily, September 17, 2014

NHTSA Deputy Administrator grilled at hearing on GM recall mistakes

By Joe Bichl

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill and other senators questioned David Friedman, Deputy Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance on “serious deficiences” in oversight of motor vehicle and highway safety.

The hearing, titled: “Oversight of and Policy Considerations for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,” was held to examine the implementation of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act or MAP-21, as well as assess the efficacy and needs of NHTSA’s vehicle safety authority and its administration of highway safety programs.

However, McCaskill, who chaired the hearing, repeatedly challenged Friedman on the agency’s role in the delay of General Motors’ ignition switch recall. She pressed Friedman on whether NHTSA is functioning as an effective “cop on the beat” when it comes to motor vehicle safety, grilled him on what tactics the agency is using to boost safety, and challenged him to take responsibility for NHTSA’s failures in safety oversight.

“[W]e’re frustrated with you,” McCaskill said at one point. “Nobody on this subcommittee believes that there aren’t people [at the agency] trying to do the right thing… but it’s hard to sit here and listen to you… Why you cannot take a measure of responsibility for that at this hearing has frankly got us scratching our heads… You want to obfuscate responsibility rather than take responsibility.”

The hearing came a day after a House Energy and Commerce Committee report had identified 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 ignition switch safety defect.

In his testimony Friedman defended the agency’s actions in the General Motors ignition switch recall debacle, stating that GM clearly had information available that “should have prompted the company to announce the recall much sooner than it did.” For NHTSA’s part, Friedman said, “[w]e collected the maximum civil penalty of $35 million from GM for its failure to meet its timeliness obligations.” The agency also entered into a consent order with GM that “provides for our very close oversight of its defects investigation and recall process for some time. We are exercising that oversight vigorously and will continue to work to ensure that the changes the company has made this year and those they continue to make are effective and lasting.” In addition, Friedman pointed out that GM also had a fundamentally flawed process and culture, requiring wide-ranging internal changes to improve its ability to address potential safety-related defects.

McCaskill and her colleagues also touched on examples highlighted by the recent recalls at General Motors, saying, “The GM recall has shown us we still have serious deficiencies in how both automakers and auto safety regulators accomplish the task of ensuring the vehicles on the road are as safe as they can be.”

Friedman testified that NHTSA is also working to improve its processes. “We have also looked very closely at the events leading up to and following the GM recall to determine how we might improve the agency’s process and increase automaker compliance with the law.” As an example, Friedman indicated that because of the agency’s new “understanding” of the relationship between ignition switch position and airbag deployment, dialogue and new investigations have led to additional recalls at GM and other car companies.

Further, Friedman noted, the agency is working to enhance communication with manufacturers and suppliers, and within NHTSA itself, on the “potential for unforeseen consequences of interrelationships between vehicle systems and on other factors that can delay or obstruct quick action on safety defects. We are also now requiring similar oversight of manufacturers who fail to meet their timeliness obligations.”

The hearing also examined NHTSA’s implementation of highway and vehicle safety provisions of the MAP-21, which included a number of reforms to safety programs—as well as McCaskill’s bipartisan legislation that would ban car rental companies from allowing consumers to rent or sell vehicles that are under manufacturer recall.

Companies: General Motors

MainStory: TopStory NHTSANewsStory MotorVehiclesNews

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