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NHTSA's Boss Doesn't Live In The Same Reality As Everyone Else

Illustration for article titled NHTSAs Boss Doesnt Live In The Same Reality As Everyone Else

Over the past few months, members of Congress have pulled few punches when it comes to condemning General Motors executives in the wake of the ignition switch recall crisis. Today they aimed their ire at David Friedman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and it was not pretty.


Friedman's strategy at today's U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing could best be summed up as the three D's: deny, deflect, and "Do what now?"


What we saw was the acting head of America's auto safety regulator, the head of an agency with an $819 million budget tasked with protecting consumers and holding automakers accountable, refusing to own up to any of the myriad ways his agency failed time and time again to notice the problem even when it was right in front of their noses since at least 2007. From Automotive News:

"We need some admission here that this was not done right," said McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is chairman 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."

Friedman mostly deflected blame to GM for the faulty ignition switch and the 19 confirmed crash deaths tied to it. While he acknowledged his agency could have done better in hindsight, he refused calls from senators to apologize for it and pinned the blame on GM's attempts to "to hide the ball" while they were trying to find it.

Blame primarily does lie with GM, because after all, it was their product. But what responsibility, besides a legal one and maybe the idea that they should keep people alive so they can buy more of their cars, does GM really have for making sure its products are safe?


The responsibility for that also lies with NHTSA, a taxpayer-funded agency tasked with protecting consumers, and they came up short repeatedly either through bureaucratic incompetence or simply "shrugging" off the problem the way GM executives nodded in agreement only never to act.

I won't recount all the ways that NHTSA mishandled the ignition switch investigation over a number of years; I already went into all of that today. What I will add is this excerpt from the New York Times' recap of the hearing:

Mr. Friedman steadfastly defended the agency's assessment of the information that was given to it at the time. "G.M. had information that they failed to share with us and that hindered our investigation."

He declined a request from Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, that he apologize to the public for the agency's failure to act on thousands of driver complaints about stalling in Cobalts and other G.M. vehicles.

"There is no doubt that stalling can be a serious safety issue," he said. But he added: "We get many many thousands of complaints about stalling. In this case, when we looked at the data these cases did not stand out. If a consumer can pull a car over to the side of the road and restart it," he said, that is not a safety problem.


Emphasis mine. Not surprisingly, the senators disagreed.

Maybe he's right, but what happens when that stall disables the car's airbags and causes a bunch of fatal crashes? What happens when that fact gets pointed out to NHTSA several times over a number of years, and they still don't order a recall in spite of mounting evidence? If you ask Friedman, that's all GM's fault.


David Friedman doesn't live in the same reality as everyone else.

Photo credit AP

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I have lost a lot of respect for Patrick George over the reporting of this ignition switch recall. Every article he writes makes it seem like the issue and the solution were painfully obvious, and that dead bodies were stacking up like cordwood. This is false, it is sensationalist reporting, it misleads the public, and it damages the public discourse.

It is tragic that people died, but 13 accidents over 6 years does not provide a whole lot of evidence to find the root cause. I am an engineer, I troubleshoot issues all the time, and it is very difficult to find the root cause of rare, intermittent problems. GM's investigators did not have the luxury of knowing that the ignition switch was faulty, they only knew that the airbags hadn't deployed. They had to study every system in the car that could affect airbags, on only a handful of crashes, and then try and tease out some sort of pattern from the data.

GM certainly didn't handle the situation properly, the relevant engineers should have realized that a stalling car is more dangerous than a minor inconvenience, and the part number should have been changed correctly. But to sit here with 20/20 hindsight and loudly complain that everyone else should have figured this all out sooner is simple arrogance.