5 findings from Congress's report on safety agency

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

DETROIT (AP) — Republicans on the House Commerce Committee released a report Tuesday critical of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government's top auto safety agency, and its handling of General Motors' delayed recall of 2.6 million cars with defective ignition switches. NHTSA was also the subject of a Senate subcommittee hearing later Tuesday.

Here are the top five findings from the House report:

— SEVEN-YEAR GAP: As early as 2007, NHTSA had information from multiple sources suggesting GM's ignition switches were slipping out of position, causing small cars to stall and turning off their air bags. Information reported by GM and individual crash investigations, including three reports commissioned by the agency itself, showed the link. But the agency declined to open an investigation because the number of consumer complaints didn't seem higher than peer vehicles.

— LACK OF KNOWLEDGE: Starting in 2003, NHTSA required the installation of advanced air bags, which prevent injuries by controlling the force of deployment based on an occupant's size, seat position and other factors. But the equipment drained the battery more quickly, so the air bags weren't designed to work for more than a few seconds after the car was off. Even after crash reports suggested that air bags weren't deploying when GM cars stalled, safety investigators didn't explore the link. They assumed — incorrectly — that second-generation air bags would continue to work for a substantial amount of time even after the car was off.

— LACK OF TRAINING: Investigators have a hard time keeping up with current technology because of a limited training budget, the report says. The lead air bag investigator on the GM case didn't recall attending a paid training course in the last six to eight years. GM was one of a few manufacturers who provided NHTSA investigators with technical briefings, but regulators said they didn't always trust automakers to share relevant facts.

— SILOS: Like GM, NHTSA is a large organization with employees who aren't communicating with each other. Defect investigators have little interaction with staff responsible for safety testing. After the GM recall, the agency canvassed other offices and found a few employees who understood the relationship between the vehicle's power mode and its air bags, but none of those people were involved in the initial Cobalt reviews in 2007.

— DATA MANAGEMENT: NHTSA collects a vast amount of data from consumers, automakers, outside investigators and others. But information doesn't flow well. The agency failed to track or identify similarities in three independent investigations it commissioned after Cobalt crashes. Investigators were also unaware of a service bulletin about faulty ignition switches GM had issued in 2005, even though GM submitted the bulletin to the agency.