Federal auto safety regulators fell under scathing criticism again this week following the release of a House committee report that underscored their failures in policing General Motors (GM) while consumer complaints about defects and accident reports piled up in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) database.
“The agency’s repeated failure to identify, let alone explore, the potential defect theory related to the ignition switch — even after it was spelled out in a report the agency commissioned — is inexcusable,” the House Energy and Commerce Committee concluded in its report.
The report blames NHTSA for failing to notice a pattern of failures in GM-made cars that pointed to a highly dangerous, sometimes deadly ignition switch defect that went unfixed for more than a decade.
“That reflects obviously on an agency that is perhaps more interested in singing kumbaya with the manufacturers than being a cop on the beat,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, who chaired Tuesday’s committee hearing.
GM’s ignition switch defect is linked to at least 19 deaths and dozens of crashes. The automaker began recalling vehicles affected by the potentially deadly ignition flaw last February, more than a decade after GM engineering tests first discovered it. The company has since recalled 2.6 million vehicles to fix the ignition switches. About 2.2 million of the affected vehicles are in the U.S.
The hyper-sensitive ignition switches can allow the key to slip out of the run position when it is jostled by a bump in the road or uneven terrain, resulting in a sudden loss of power steering, anti-lock brakes, and airbag protection.
The committee report says that both GM and NHTSA “overlooked or failed to understand” police reports, such as one detailing the crash of a 2005 Chevy Cobalt in Wisconsin. That crash, which killed two passengers and injured the driver, occurred when the vehicle went airborne off a road, striking trees and a telephone pole. A state trooper noted in the crash report that the key in the Cobalt’s ignition was turned to the “accessory” position and the front airbags failed to deploy.
“It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn’t identify the warnings,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton said in a statement. “NHTSA exists not just to process what the company finds, but to dig deeper. They failed.”