A harsh new report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) demonstrates how the negligence and incompetence of a federal regulatory agency in addressing automotive safety defects can amount to dozens of deaths and hundreds of catastrophic injuries.
On Monday, the Office of the Inspector General released a report of its findings from its investigation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) response to General Motors’ defective ignition switches, which put the lives of tens of millions of U.S. motorists at risk.
According to the report, consumers, car dealers, and mechanics specifically reported the GM ignition switch defect, which can allow the keys to turn the ignition off, resulting in an often-deadly combination of loss of power steering, anti-lock brakes, and airbag protection.
The defective ignition switches have been linked to more than 110 deaths and 200 injuries, with the earliest cases appearing nearly a decade ago, yet NHTSA regulators failed to take meaningful action.
One car owner wrote a letter to both GM and NHTSA describing how the ignition in her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt repeatedly turned itself off while she was driving.
“This is a safety/recall issue if there ever was one … The problem is the ignition turn switch is poorly installed. Even with the slightest touch, the car will shut off while in motion,” the letter said. NHTSA regulators failed to respond to the letter and didn’t look into the complaint further, even when similar complaints came in.
The reported noted that the airbags failed to deploy in another 2005 Chevy Cobalt that crashed, killing the occupants. A state trooper investigating that crash noted that the ignition switch was likely to blame. That report was backed by another report from a highway administration special crash investigation team that also probed the crash.
“The vehicle’s air bags failed to deploy possibly due to ‘power loss due to movement of the ignition switch just prior to the impact,’ among other potential reasons,” that report stated, yet it triggered no further action from NHTSA.
The report also noted that NHTSA investigators “looked at GM air bag non-deployments as a potential safety issue starting in 2007. However, it ultimately decided not to investigate the problem and never identified the ignition switch defect as the root cause.”
According to CNN, “the inspector general report found numerous other failings with the highway administration’s investigative teams, including insufficient training and supervision of staff, and a failure to ‘follow standard statistical practices when analyzing early warning reporting data,’ and concerns that the administration’s investigation unit ‘does not thoroughly screen consumer complaints.’”
Moreover, NHTSA officials never documented why they chose not to investigate the ignition switch concerns further.
Complaints about the problem continued to mount, but it wasn’t until last February that GM finally admitted the problem existed and started recalling the affected cars. About 9 GM million vehicles have since been included in the recall.