Report Finds NHTSA Failed To Detect GM Ignition Switch Issue For Seven Years Despite Ample Information

By definition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is tasked with preventing crashes and achieving the highest standards of excellence in motor vehicle and highway safety. Yet, according to a new House committee report, the agency failed for years to identify a safety issue in General Motors vehicles that eventually lead to 19 deaths, if not more.

A House Energy & Commerce Committee report [PDF] released Tuesday criticizes NHTSA for its failure and missed opportunities in analyzing and responding to data and information provided to the agency that detected the deadly ignition switch defect in millions of General Motors vehicles.

According to the report, NHTSA had ample information to identify a potential safety defect in GM cars as early as 2007. Included in that information was a state trooper report linking airbags and the ignition switch as well as three independent investigations commissioned by the agency involving the non-deployment of frontal airbags in the Cobalt model.

The committee’s investigation into the agency and GM began shortly after the car manufacturer first recalled millions of Chevrolet Cobalts for an ignition switch that could be inadvertently jostled out of position while the vehicle is being driven, potentially disabling the air bags.

Although the report noted that GM deserved much of the blame for the decade-long recall delay, regulators shouldn’t be held without responsibility.

“NHSTA too suffered from a lack of accountability, poor information sharing, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the vehicles, all of which contributed to the failure to identify and fix this deadly defect,” Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee said.

Similarly to GM, which had knowledge of issues as early as 2001, NHTSA had information regarding a problem nearly seven years ago but did not initiate an investigation.

Two Divisions of the Office of Defects Investigations (ODI) identified a potential defect related to the non-deployment of frontal air bags in the Cobalt and Ion through information reported by GM under the TREAD Act as well as consumer complaints and other information received by NHTSA. In addition, the agency received multiple reports — including a police report and agency-commissioned crash investigations — suggesting a link between a low torque ignition switch and air bag non-deployment. Despite numerous sources of information, when the agency considered a proposal to open an investigation into the non-deployment of frontal air bags in the Cobalt and Ion in 2007, investigators relied on a generalized trend analysis of consumer complaints to assess the potential for a defect. The number of consumer complaints related to the Cobalt and Ion did not stand out from peer vehicles, therefore the agency did not pursue an investigation.

In some instances, the committee found that NHTSA regulators actually ignored information that could have potentially identified the issue had they understood vehicle airbag systems or monitored similarities between reports.

“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.”

The committee found that NHTSA failed to investigate or probe documents that linked airbags to ignition switch failures, including on from a state trooper’s report, because the agency focused instead on “outdated perceptions of how air bag systems functioned.”

“For a decade, ODI investigators evaluated air bag concerns based on their knowledge of first generation air bag systems,” the report continued. “They assumed that advanced air bag systems, like their predecessors, operated from an independent energy reserve and were completely unaware of the relationship between power mode and air bag systems. Only after the GM recall, in February 2014, did ODI investigators realize the chasm in their understanding of air bag technology.”

Additionally, no one at the agency was found to have tracked any similarities between the trooper’s report and those commissioned by NHTSA involving non-deployment of frontal airbags in the Cobalt.

“None of the investigators interviewed by the Committee recalled any discussion of the vehicle power mode status in a 2005 report even after a 2007 report suggested a possible link between power mode status and air bag deployment. Further, when the 2007 report was updated to reference a potential link to a low torque ignition switch and included the GM Technical Service Bulletin, no one at the agency recalls revisiting the first crash investigation.

In fact, key investigators told the Committee they were unaware of this potential link or the Technical Service Bulletin until after the GM recall in 2014. Similarly, few if any NHTSA employees recall reviewing the third crash investigation report, let alone comparing it to previous crash investigations.”

Members of the House committee recommend that NHTSA investigators become better informed on the technology it regulates and coordinate the data it receives from consumers and manufacturers, so as to better detect safety issues.

“NHTSA exists not just to process what the company finds, but to dig deeper. They failed,” Rep. Fred Upton, of Michigan, and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman says. “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.”

Committee Report Details NHTSA Failures in GM Ignition Switch Recall [House Energy and Commerce Committee]