Back when they hit General Motors with a record $35 million fine for not reporting the ignition switch defect, officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had stern words for automakers who hid problems and delayed recalls. The thing is, NHTSA was hardly blameless in both the GM scandal and the new Takata airbag fiasco.
"The historic GM civil penalty and reforms we have ordered today should send a clear message: all manufacturers will be held accountable by NHTSA if they fail to quickly report and address safety- related defects," NHTSA's acting administrator David Friedman said in May when the fines were handed down.
He added, "We want to make sure all auto manufacturers and suppliers hear the message that they must react immediately to potential safety defects—the American public relies on them to do just that, and the law requires them to do so. "
Funny story: Do you know who else knew about the ignition switch problem in the Cobalt and other small cars long before the public? NHTSA, that's who! They received more than 160 complaints over nine years from Cobalt owners who complained of stalling, and in 2007 when staff members recommended an investigation into the problem, an agency panel chose not to order one.
NHTSA has taken heat over this little factoid in Washington from both Democrats and Republicans. And they're poised to get even more criticism in the wake of the Takata airbag recalls affecting 14 million Hondas, BMWs and other cars. A story in the New York Times revealed that Honda in 2004 and 2007 filed (admittedly vague) reports on injuries related to their airbags, but NHTSA didn't inquire into them further.
If "the GM nod" is such a problem, then "the NHTSA shrug" has to be equally as bad.
NHTSA's role in the GM recalls is what the agency is really catching flack over, especially on the heels of a new report by the House Energy and Commerce Committee that outlines, and I quote, "key failures and missed opportunities" in analyzing and responding to the data available to them.
Here are some of the failures outlined in the 44-page report:
—NHTSA had information from GM, a police report and their own crash investigations that suggested a link between the faulty ignition switch and airbag non-deployment (which is what's really at the heart of that problem) as early as 2007, but decided not to act because they thought "the number of consumer complaints related to the Cobalt and Ion did not stand out from peer vehicles." But when it came to airbag non-deployments, NHTSA's own data said otherwise.
—Agency officials had "outdated perceptions of how air bag systems functioned," and as the New York Times reported today, their chief of the Defects Assessment Division didn't know airbags were supposed to deploy even when an occupant wasn't wearing a seat belt.
—When examining how NHTSA addressed airbag failures following concerns raised in a 2007 story in the Kansas City Star, officials believed they were "beating a 'dead horse.'"
—NHTSA had evidence in 2005 that a Cobalt whose airbags failed to deploy in a Maryland crash had its key in the "accessory" position, but the House investigation says "it is unclear what, if any, actions the agency took as a result of this report."
—The agency's Chief of the Defects Assessment Division had a conversation with GM personnel in 2007 about Cobalt airbag failures, but "he did not ask the GM officials to look into the issue or provide any documents and he did not recall any follow-up with them after this discussion."
—One of the unsung heroes in this whole ordeal was Wisconsin State Trooper Keith Young. In 2007, while investigating a fatal Cobalt crash, he went through NHTSA's own website and figured out the link between airbag non-deployments, the ignition switch, and the car getting switched to "off" or "accessory" by accident. NHTSA received a copy of his report, but no follow-up was done.
The list goes on and on. The House report says NHTSA is cumbersome, gets so bogged down with big investigations it misses the little stuff that can turn into big stuff down the road, doesn't understand technology, can't analyze the massive amount of data it collects, and doesn't hold itself to the same standard of accountability as those it regulates.
For their part, NHTSA is laying the blame squarely on GM here, saying the House report ignores the role the automaker played in hiding information from them. Here's what officials told Jalopnik in a statement:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a proven record of aggressively pursuing safety defects and pushing manufacturers to conduct recalls. The agency has issued $140 million in fines over the last five years, and influenced 1,299 recalls over the last ten years, impacting 95 million vehicles and vehicle parts. The agency looked into this issue not once, but twice, including sending investigators to examine several crashes in person, but GM withheld information and hindered NHTSA's efforts every step of the way, including changing a defective part without informing the agency, which caused the number of complaints to decrease, skewing the data when the agency reviewed the issue a second time.
NHTSA can lay blame on GM all they want, but they clearly missed key signs that could have led to a recall sooner and perhaps even prevented some of the crashes tied to the faulty ignition switch.
All of this prompts the question: Since NHTSA is apparently so bad at catching defects and ordering recalls before they become big safety issues, what is it they actually do?
Here are some of the ways this federal agency with an $819 million annual budget for 2014 enriches our lives:
They help automakers sell cars! In addition to the House report, NHTSA was hit with another double-whammy in the form of a New York Times investigation on Monday, which said, emphasis mine:
Not only does the agency spend about as much money rating new cars — a favorite marketing tool for automakers — as it does investigating potentially deadly manufacturing defects, but it also has been so deferential to automakers that it made a key question it poses about fatal accidents optional — a policy it is only now changing after inquiries from The Times.
I wonder if GM sent a thank-you note along with that $35 million check.
They make stern comments about automakers after their defects come to light! See Friedman's comments above. He sure is serious about GM cracking down on the problem his agency has known about for years!
They spend the bulk of their budget on "traffic safety grants!" According to NHTSA's 2014 budget, they spent $561 million on grants to the states for highway traffic enforcement, anti-distracted driving programs, and "In-Vehicle Alcohol Detection Device Research," just to name a few things.
(ETA: A tweet from David Shepardson of The Detroit News made me want to add something here, and that's the fact that the states haven't spent $538 million of those grants distributed over a six-year period. So they give out money nobody uses.)
They spend around 1 percent of their budget on safety defect investigation! That was about $10.61 million in 2014 and they aren't asking for more money next year.
But they did spend $23.7 million to combat distracted driving! This was a favorite pet project of Ray LaHood, the old Transportation Secretary, whose department oversaw NHTSA. Distracted driving was not the public health epidemic he and his agency made it out to be, with deaths tied to that easily dwarfed by ones caused by drunk driving.
Its officials really aren't sure what they can do, either! Again, from the Times report:
The agency has also not made full use of its legal powers in investigating automakers, which include an ability to force the recall of vehicles and to issue subpoenas to obtain information and documents. In congressional testimony this spring, Mr. Friedman, the agency's acting head, appeared to have limited knowledge of some of the agency's legal powers and its history of exercising them. Under questioning by senators, Mr. Friedman indicated he did not realize the agency could issue subpoenas.
The next time they put an automaker on blast — even one as troubled as GM — perhaps they should realize their house needs to get put in order first.