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From Products Liability Law Daily, June 9, 2015

NHTSA’s internal review of GM ignition switch defect processes reveals flaws in infrastructure

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

In response to the past year’s intense scrutiny of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s system for identifying and addressing defective vehicles, the agency has released two reports summarizing its own internal investigation into how it handled the General Motors ignition switch defect process and disclosing NHTSA’s admission that the system is flawed and that the agency failed to follow-up on its own investigations.

NHTSA’s Path Forward. The first report, NHTSA’s Path Forward, resulted from the due diligence review NHTSA conducted in the wake of the GM ignition switch recall, which the agency characterized as one of the most significant cases in NHTSA’s history, “not only because of the tragic toll of deaths and injuries, or the technical challenges it presented, but because of the unprecedented steps the manufacturer took to conceal a deadly defect.” This internal study consisted of an in-depth examination of the ignition switch defect and the practices of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI). The intent of the study was to determine what GM and NHTSA each knew about the defect and to develop a list of lessons learned that could be used to improve the agency’s defects investigation process.

Key findings of the study include: (1) GM withheld critical information about engineering changes that would have allowed NHTSA to more quickly to identify the defect; (2) NHTSA failed to hold GM accountable for providing inadequate information; (3) neither GM nor NHTSA completely understood the application of advanced air bag technology in GM vehicles; (4) NHTSA did not consider alternate theories proposed by internal and external sources; and (5) NHTSA did not identify and follow-up on trends revealed in its own data sources and investigations.

As a result of these key findings, NHTSA recommended the following process improvements: (1) increase the accountability of the automotive industry by focusing on information collections as well as on oversight and audits of automotive manufacturers and their parts suppliers; (2) increase NHTSA’s knowledge base of new and emerging technologies; (3) enhance ODI’s systems safety approach to detection and analysis; (4) enhance information management, analysis, and sharing through Special Crash Investigation Division (SCI) reports and the new software-driven corporate information factory (CIF); (5) establish improved controls for assessing potential defects; and (6) ensure effective communications and coordination within ODI and between ODI and the SCI.

Workforce Assessment: Future of NHTSA’s Defect Investigations. The second report was prepared in response to the agency’s commitment to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General that it would assess NHTSA’s workforce in light of the sweeping advances in vehicle technology. It also represents the agency’s initiation of its work on the “lessons learned” from its Path Forward study. According to NHTSA Administrator Mark R. Rosekind, Ph.D., the GM ignition switch investigation, which arose just as NHTSA was completing its workforce assessment, raised fundamental questions challenging the sufficiency of the agency’s initial assessment. The report that was released contained a comprehensive examination of the defects investigation system that could be built with the right resources from Congress and the commitment to a robust vehicle safety system, Rosekind stressed.

The workforce assessment outlines the resources NHTSA would need to strategically improve defects investigations, and defines the need for both short-term resource increases, as illustrated by the agency’s FY 2016 budget, and a plan for the long-term strategic growth of the agency’s capabilities. Among the short-term resource needs identified in the FY 2016 budget is the first substantial increase to ODI staff (+380) and resources (+$89 million) in many years. These increases would allow ODI to addresses issues involving new technologies and optimize ODI’s use of the vast increase in complex data produced by these technologies. For long-term strategic growth, NHTSA outlined a new paradigm in the form of a new, comprehensive defects program. The new program would provide ODI strength in numbers, data, and processes that will allow it to fulfill its mission in a more effective and timely manner.

Companies: General Motors LLC.

MainStory: TopStory MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews

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