GM’s Recall Scandal Prompts a Senate Grilling of NHTSA Chief

Dep't Of Transportation Discusses Vehicle-To-Vehicle Communication Technology
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Friedman, sat through an intense grilling before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday that pressed him on the agency’s failure to identify the patterns of accidents that led to the enormous ignition switch recall by General Motors earlier this year.

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, said that said the NHTSA completely missed the defect despite numerous people outside the agency — including a Wisconsin highway patrolman, crash investigators hired by the agency, and individual drivers — that tried to bring the problem to its attention, Automotive News reported.

“There are clearly things, looking back into the history of this, that we need to improve,” Friedman said, but McCaskill said that the panel was “frustrated” with his repeated excuses.

“We need some admission here that this was not done right,” she added McCaskill, who is Chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s consumer protection subcommittee. “You had citizens who were sleuthing your database on their own. They were going into your database and figuring it out.”

Data acquired by the Senate subcommittee implies that though the NHTSA had enough data to warrant a recall as early as 2007, it took no action, and the company administered its efforts only in January of this year, just two weeks or so into CEO Mary Barra’s term.

Source: General Motors

While it might appear that the Senate is hounding the agency, it agrees that the vast burden of fault lies with GM, which knew as far back as 2001 that there were issues with the switches, yet did nothing for over 13 years. The engineers widely seen as being responsible for the faulty parts’ implementation into the vehicles were let go earlier this year.

Friedman and the Senate panel disagreed over how of reports of Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions stalling out while driving was to be interpreted. Automotive News said that Friedman argued that, “Such an event is not always evidence of a safety defect, if the vehicle can be maneuvered safely and restarted, but several senators disagreed,” the site said. “NHTSA was actively trying to find the ball,” Friedman said. “GM was actively trying to hide the ball.”

“Potentially, we would’ve gotten more information, but even there, in 2007, based on our look-back, it is not even clear that GM and the folks we engaged with at GM understood the relationship between the ignition switch and the airbag,” he said. “So it’s possible that we could’ve asked them and they would’ve told us ‘we don’t know’ or ‘no,’” Automotive News quoted him as saying.

Essentially, what it comes down to is massive failures of communication on virtually every level; within GM, within the NHTSA, and between the company and the agency. Though the Senate is right in running each organization around the barn, the issues are not isolated to this one recall effort — this just happened to be the one that blew the doors off. Without massive strucural upheaval, the Senate is merely chasing band-aid fixes for bullet wound problems.