Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration admitted Friday it made a series of errors in its handling of General Motors Co.’s delayed recall of 2.6 million cars with faulty ignition switches linked to 109 deaths and more than 200 injuries. The federal agency pledged to make significant reforms.
NHTSA is bracing for what are expected to be scathing reports into the GM recall from the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General and Government Accountability Office. The safety agency released its internal findings in part to show it already was making significant reforms. NHTSA said it is making changes to spot defect problems earlier, and announced that a three-member team would advise the agency on its restructuring.
In two internal reports released Friday, NHTSA said it failed to hold the Detroit automaker accountable; didn’t understand alternate theories how the company’s air bags worked; and didn’t follow up on trends from its own data and investigation.
It acknowledged it missed numerous chances over nearly a decade to discover the deadly defect in 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars. In those cars, which since have been recalled, the key can inadvertently turn off the engine and disable power steering and air bags.
Still, the report places most of the blame on GM for failing to disclose problems to NHTSA.
In May 2014, NHTSA fined GM a record-setting $35 million for delaying the recall and GM had to agree to up to three years of intensive monitoring. GM CEO Mary Barra fired 15 and disciplined five after an internal GM report showed a “pattern of incompetence and neglect.”
GM said in a statement Friday, “We support the changes to NHTSA’s organization announced today and we will continue to work collaboratively with NHTSA toward our shared goal of improving automobile safety in all respects.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said the agency was not disciplining or firing anyone as a result of Friday’s report. It was the agency’s most forthcoming admission that it shoulders some of the blame in failing to discover the defect. In testimony before Congress last year, NHTSA largely rejected responsibility.
Rosekind didn’t want to focus on blame, seeking instead to emphasize how to improve the system. “There is no single individual who can be blamed for the things that happened previously,” he said, adding there was no evidence that NHTSA employees intentionally failed to do their jobs.
Part of the problem is funding, Rosekind said. The White House proposed tripling NHTSA’s auto defects budget and doubling the number of staff assigned to it. But Congress has shown little interest in doing so.
‘Crucial first step’
Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said they were happy NHTSA is finally acknowledging its errors. “Unfortunately, for more than a decade, NHTSA failed to address the information and evidence it had in its own database linking defective ignition switch to fatal accidents,” they said.
The pair said NHTSA must “put in place permanent measures necessary to prevent another tragedy like this from ever happening again.”
Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, praised the self-assessment and said Congress must give NHTSA more funding.
He called it “a crucial first step toward restoring the integrity of the agency’s enforcement process and the ability to hold the auto industry accountable for defects that kill and injure ... The assessment also sets into motion new internal processes to correct deficiencies in agency procedures that missed defects like GM ignition switch, Jeep fuel tank and Takata air-bag inflators.”
The Justice Department is nearing a decision on whether to pursue criminal charges against GM and impose a fine that could be in excess of $1.2 billion as part of a settlement that is likely to come by summer’s end. The Securities and Exchange Commission and 50 state attorneys general also are investigating.
The announcement comes ahead of a forthcoming report from the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General into NHTSA’s handling of GM’s ignition issues. That report is expected to harshly criticize the agency’s handling of the issues.
The Government Accountability Office also is investigating NHTSA’s handling of the recalls as part of a broader assessment of the agency’s performance sought by Congress.
In September, the House Energy and Commerce Committee sharply criticized NHTSA’s handling of the GM complaints between 2007 and 2014, saying it had made “inexcusable errors.” A committee report said that after NHTSA declined to open an investigation into air-bag failures in Cobalts and other cars in 2007, the agency was deeply reluctant to revisit that conclusion even after new crashes and reports came to the agency’s attention.
One of the NHTSA reports found the agency “did not hold GM accountable for providing inadequate information.” That was despite the fact that “GM’s responses often contained very little information and included invocations of legal privilege.” It said the agency did not “push back and request more information.”
Team to address changes
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Friday he is naming a three-person team that will spend the next year advising NHTSA on implementing changes outlined in the reports.
The team includes Joseph Kolly, director of the Office of Research and Engineering at the National Transportation Safety Board; J. Victor Lebacqz, former associate administrator for aeronautics research at NASA; and James P. Bagian, a former NASA astronaut who directs the Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety at the University of Michigan, where he is a professor at the medical and engineering schools.
NHTSA has long been criticized for being too cozy with automakers. But since Rosekind was confirmed as NHTSA’s new administrator in December, the agency has taken a much more aggressive approach to auto safety issues. At the same time, some senior officials have announced plans to retire.
NHTSA pressured Takata Corp. last month to declare 33.8 million vehicles with its air bags defective, announced it would hold an unprecedented July 2 hearing into Fiat Chrysler’s safety issues and prodded Ford Motor Co. to expand a door latch recall.