NHTSA faces harsh criticism in Senate hearing

David Shepardson
The Detroit News

Washington — – The highest-ranking official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration came under withering criticism Tuesday from senators of both parties, but refused to accept blame for failing to discover defects in now-recalled General Motors cars that have been linked to at least 19 deaths.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman repeatedly sought to place the blame squarely on GM. While key senators agreed that GM bore the primarily responsibility, they faulted the auto safety agency for failing to connect the dots — including reports the agency received from outside sources in 2007 that showed air bag failures were linked to ignition switches moving out of position.

“NHTSA was actively trying to find the ball,” Friedman said. “GM was actively trying to hide the ball.”

He acknowledged that the agency in retrospect could have done better, but passed up a request to apologize for not discovering the defect.

Also Tuesday, 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 report from the committee said that once NHTSA declined to open an investigation into air bag failures in Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions 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.

Friedman passed up calls by senators to apologize to families to accept significant responsibility for failing to do more to discover the defect.

Friedman told reporters after the hearing that that the agency is changing its procedures.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the agency had given some consumers a “false sense of security” by awarding five-car crash ratings to vehicles that were subjected to dangerous recalls. He suggested that perhaps the nearly 40-year-old program should be scrapped and the money used for defect investigations.

Jacqueline Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the public supports giving NHTSA more money for more investigators. “We’re not giving them the resources to do their jobs,” Gillan said.

GM should bear the “majority of the blame” for ignition recalls, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said. “However NHTSA could have performed better.”

The Transportation Department inspector general’s office said it is focusing its investigation into decision-making by NHTSA before it decides whether to open a formal investigation into the agency.

Several senators urged the White House to move quickly to finding a new administrator.

The investigation into GM’s handling of complaints before it recalled the 2.6 million cars was launched in March at Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s request. It is looking at NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation.

“We are drilling down on NHTSA’s pre-investigation process. During the pre-investigation phase, ODI’s Defect Assessment Division screens consumer complaints, external manufacturer communications and other information related to alleged safety defects,” said Joseph W. Comé, deputy principal assistant inspector general in his prepared testimony.

The inspector general said NHTSA has made progress but still needs to make changes. Completing a “workforce assessment, identifying and securing an adequate workforce, and enhancing grant oversight are key for NHTSA to carry out its broad safety mission.” NHTSA told the inspector general’s office that it will complete the assessment by Nov. 14.

In an interview Monday, Friedman said the agency had sought additional funding for more staff. He said the Office of Defects Investigation has had an average of 52 staffers for the last 15 years — and currently has 51. Friedman told the House Energy and Commerce Committee in answers to written questions the agency doesn’t have enough staff to use the analytic tools it currently has and needs more personnel to adequately use it.

He told the Senate in his written testimony that the agency is working to do better. “We are now working to enhance communication with manufacturers and suppliers, and within our own organization, 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. “

Friedman criticized GM in his testimony. GM “had a fundamentally flawed process and culture, requiring wide-ranging internal changes to improve its ability to address potential safety-related defects,” he said.