Senators Berate NHTSA Leader During Hearing

The Detroit Bureau

U.S. Sen­a­tors took turns lam­bast­ing the head of the Nation­al High­way Traf­fic Safe­ty Admin­is­tra­tion dur­ing a sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing for fail­ing to dis­cov­er soon­er the prob­lem with Gen­er­al Motors faulty igni­tion switch that is cause of 19 deaths and the recall of 2.6 mil­lion vehi­cles.

Sen­a­tor Claire McCaskill, who chaired Tuesday’s hear­ing, blast­ed the agency for not doing more to get to the bot­tom of the prob­lem by exer­cis­ing its pow­ers, includ­ing sub­poe­nas, to do so.

“That reflects obvi­ous­ly on an agency that is per­haps more inter­est­ed in singing kum­baya with the man­u­fac­tur­ers than being a cop on the beat,” she said.

David Fried­man, NHTSA’s act­ing admin­is­tra­tor, defend­ing the agen­cies efforts, repeat­ed­ly laid the blame for the prob­lem at GM’s feet dur­ing.

“NHTSA was active­ly try­ing to find the ball,” he said dur­ing tes­ti­mo­ny. “GM was active­ly try­ing to hide the ball.”

Fried­man often deflect­ed the crit­i­cism from sen­a­tors dur­ing ques­tion­ing and not­ed that the agency is under­staffed and under­fund­ed, but also sug­gest­ed the agency was chang­ing its process­es and pro­ce­dures to improve its per­for­mance as a result of the GM issue. He point­ed out that the agency has insti­tut­ed about 1,300 recalls involv­ing more than 95 mil­lion vehi­cles in the last 10 years.

He also declined to apol­o­gize to the fam­i­lies involved the most recent GM recall on mul­ti­ple occa­sions. The rough-and-tum­ble hear­ing, dur­ing which sev­er­al sen­a­tors called on the Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion to appoint a per­ma­nent leader of the agency, came on the heels of a report released by Repub­li­cans in the House Ener­gy and Com­merce sub­com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Inves­ti­ga­tion that exco­ri­at­ed NHTSA’s han­dling of the prob­lem.

The report sug­gests that after NHTSA decid­ed not to open an inves­ti­ga­tion into air bag fail­ures in GM’s small cars in 2007, it was unwill­ing to exam­ine that deci­sion even though more reports about the prob­lem were brought to the agency’s atten­tion.

“As vehi­cle func­tions and safe­ty sys­tems become increas­ing­ly com­plex and inter­con­nect­ed, NHTSA needs to keep pace with these rapid advance­ments in tech­nol­o­gy,” the report said. “As evi­denced by the GM recall, this may be a greater chal­lenge than even NHTSA under­stands.”

The report point­ed out that a police offi­cer inves­ti­gat­ing an acci­dent dis­cov­ered the prob­lem and for­ward­ed the infor­ma­tion to NHTSA in 2007, and the agency com­mis­sioned two out­side firms to con­duct inves­ti­ga­tions of that acci­dent and anoth­er and those find­ings sup­port­ed the officer’s con­clu­sion that the igni­tion was the cause.

Despite hav­ing this infor­ma­tion, the agency relied on larg­er data that sug­gest­ed GM’s airbag fail­ure rates weren’t sub­stan­tial­ly dif­fer­ent than all automak­ers thus it didn’t war­rant fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion.

 

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