The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conceded Friday that it had failed to respond appropriately to General Motors’ deadly ignition switch defect and vowed to substantially improve the way it responds to automotive safety defects in the future.
The agency, under new leadership since December when Mark Rosekind took over as administrator, announced in a report entitled “NHTSA’s Path Forward” its plans to overhaul the ways it identifies safety defects and analyzes crash data.
NHTSA fell under intense criticism and ridicule for its failure to take any meaningful action in dealing with GM’s ignition switch debacle, which continued unchecked for more than a decade and led to the deaths of more than 100 people. Prior to GM’s ignition switch controversy, NHTSA was blasted by lawmakers and safety advocates for its ineffective response to Toyota’s sudden unintended acceleration defects.
After conducting an internal review, NHTSA acknowledged that it possessed critical data about GM’s defective ignition switches, but failed to interpret that information. It had failed to connect the dots.
For instance, in 2005 the agency started investigating crashes of GM vehicles in which the airbags failed to deploy, but it failed to connect that problem with faulty ignition switches, even when it had complaints of GM vehicles suddenly losing power.
Incredibly, NHTSA also failed to recognize the defective ignition switches as a potential safety issue. According to Law360, regulators “believed that vehicles with stalled engines could be steered anyway, and that their air bags could be deployed using reserve power, a feature it says exists in many other automakers’ vehicles.”
NHTSA also admitted it failed to hold GM to the fire when questioning company officials about serious crashes, “accepting incomplete responses by the automaker” invoked by legal privilege.
“Rather than push back and request more information, NHTSA analyzed the incomplete responses, preventing NHTSA from having a complete understanding of all the incidents in question,” the agency said in its report.
Addressing its shortcomings, NHTSA said it is forming new safety teams, including a Safety Systems Team comprised of three outside experts who will advise the agency on implementing the changes it outlines in its report. NHTSA also said it is bringing staff from across the agency to confront “emerging highway safety risks that cut across the agency’s enforcement, vehicle safety and behavioral safety efforts.”
“Our obligation to save lives and prevent injuries must include sober self-examination, and when we find weaknesses, we have to fix them,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said. “These reports outline how NHTSA is already improving its systems for identifying and addressing vehicle safety defects, and offers options for building the workforce it needs to meet its obligations to the traveling public.”