House panel: Safety agency mishandled GM recall

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The agency responsible for safety on the nation's roads was years late in detecting a deadly problem with General Motors cars and lacks the expertise to oversee increasingly complex vehicles, congressional Republicans charged Tuesday in a new report.

The report by a House committee's GOP majority raised serious questions about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's ability to keep the public safe, and came as the Senate was convening a hearing on the safety agency's shortcomings.

Safety regulators should have discovered GM's faulty ignition switches seven years before the company recalled 2.6 million cars to fix the deadly problem, the report concluded.

It also said the agency didn't understand how air bags worked, lacked accountability and failed to share information internally.

"As vehicle functions and safety systems become increasingly complex and interconnected, NHTSA needs to keep pace with these rapid advancements in technology," the report said. "As evidenced by the GM recall, this may be a greater challenge than even NHTSA understands."

At least 19 people died in crashes caused by the faulty switches in GM small cars like the Chevrolet Cobalt. The company acknowledged knowing about the problem for at least a decade, but it didn't recall the cars until February. The delays left the problem on the roads, causing numerous crashes that resulted in deaths and injuries. Lawmakers have said they expect the death toll to rise to near 100.

NHTSA already has fined GM the maximum $35 million for failing to report information on the switches, but the committee found that many of the bureaucratic snafus that plagued GM also are present at NHTSA.

"While NHTSA now complains about GM's switch, it seems NHTSA was asleep at the switch too," Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., said in a statement.

NHTSA blamed GM for the delays and said many problems cited by the committee were fixed in a 2011 review. GM, the agency said, hid information by fixing switches without changing the part numbers, causing the number of complaints about the switches to decline and skewing data. "GM withheld information and hindered NHTSA's efforts every step of the way," NHTSA said.

The agency said it has a strong record of pursuing defects, influencing almost 1,300 recalls covering 95 million vehicles and parts in the last decade. NHTSA also said it's using sophisticated tools to search for defects and it has an improved complaint-tracking process. It's also discussing with Congress the need for more investigators.

Acting administrator David Friedman was testifying Tuesday at a hearing before a Senate commerce subcommittee. Friedman took over when administrator David Strickland resigned two months before the GM recalls began.

"It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn't identify the warnings," Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement. "NHTSA exists not just to process what the company finds, but to dig deeper. They failed."

NHTSA received consumer complaints about the GM switches for years, but didn't order a recall investigation. The faulty switches can shut down engines unexpectedly while a car is moving, disabling the air bags and other key systems such as power steering and power brakes, causing crashes.

The House committee said that a Wisconsin state trooper sent a report to NHTSA in 2007 about a crash that killed two teenage girls. The air bags failed to inflate, and the trooper traced the problem to the ignition switches. The agency also commissioned two outside investigations that reached the same conclusion in that crash and another one, yet no one at NHTSA connected the information.

NHTSA rejected a proposal to start an investigation, relying on a general consumer complaint trend that showed the GM cars didn't stand out from comparable vehicles in number of complaints or reported defects, the report said.

Other findings by the House committee majority:

—An updated 2007 report on the Wisconsin crash for NHTSA by Indiana University included a reference to a GM service bulletin to dealers telling them that the switches could unexpectedly shut off engines. Yet NHTSA investigators told the committee they didn't know about the bulletin until after the recall.

—NHTSA investigators didn't understand how advanced air bags worked, and instead based their assessment of GM's problems on outdated knowledge. "It was not until after GM announced a recall of these vehicles in February 2014 that NHTSA understood the connection between the ignition switch position and air bag deployment," the report said.

—Budget constraints have limited NHTSA's training. The lead air bag investigator assigned to the GM case didn't remember any paid training courses in the past six to eight years.

"The agency is not doing the job which it has the capacity to do, and people are at risk as result," said auto safety advocate Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator.

The ignition switch problems forced GM to do a companywide safety investigation that triggered recalls covering more than 29 million cars and trucks so far this year.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the Senate panel's chairman, has introduced a bill that would eliminate the $35 million cap on the amount the agency can fine automakers like GM, and give prosecutors greater discretion to bring criminal charges.

The government already has enough authority to address situations where it feels larger penalties are needed, said Rob Straussberger, an Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers vice president slated to testify at the hearing.


Krisher reported from Detroit. Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at