On Monday Sept. 14, the New York Times began running a series of articles outlining the systematic failure of federal regulators to identify dangerous defects in cars produced by General Motors. A recent House report, obtained by the Times, shows how agency investigators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would routinely discount information that did not match their assumptions. Even worse, officials from the agency often didn’t understand the technology they were investigating.
Specifically the report focuses on an ignition switch used in smaller GM cars like the Chevy Cobalt that was defective. These switches were prone to turn off unexpectedly, which in turn would cut off power in a moving car, disabling air bags and other major safety systems like power steering and power brakes. This failure led to crashes, often fatal, and so far at least 19 deaths have been attributed to the defective ignition switch and at least 100 more death claims are under review.
The primary duty of the NHTSA is to oversee motor vehicle and traffic safety. The Times’ articles show over and over how the agency failed in their mission. The House Report also shows that the agency “had critical information in its possession which pointed to this defect. Whether the information was not understood, overlooked or lost in organizational stove-pipes, the agency’s failure to follow up on this information contributed to NHTSA’s inability to identify this defect.”
As early as 2001, in pre-production GM had identified the problems with the ignition switch. Delphi, who made the switch for GM, warns that it did not meet company specifications, yet GM still allows it to go into production in 2002. A year later the NHTSA received the first complaints about the unexpected shutdowns and crashes caused by the switch. The first death tied to the faulty ignition switch came in 2005.
General Motors responded by opening an inquiry into the switch, and then ended it inconclusively two months later, saying, “none of the solutions represents an acceptable business case.”
All along the NHTSA knew of the issues but failed to act. In 2007, in spite of citing 29 complaints, 4 fatal crashes, and 14 field reports, but agency chose not to pursue a formal investigation.
This excellent report in the Times shows how General Motors chose to pursue profits at the expense, often fatal, of the public who bought their cars. But even more troubling was how the NHTSA, charged with protecting the public, failed at every turn to do their duty. When the agency eventually took a leading role, it came only after the problem had reached a crisis level.
GM has put a program in place to compensate victims and has set aside $400 million to pay accident victims and surviving relatives. There is a Dec. 31 deadline to file claims, and it is certain that the death toll attributed to the faulty switch will grow past the 19 already identified.
For the victims of this fatal defect in GM cars, there can be no adequate compensation. For the NHTSA, who was responsible for ensuring the public’s safety, there needs to be an inquiry to make sure this failure never happens again.