Transcript: Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Q&A with NHTSA & DOT officials on GM’s ignition switch recall

Partial transcript of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minnesota) Q&A with NHSTA Acting Administrator David Friedman and Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel on “Examining the GM Recall and NHTSA’s Defect Investigation Process”. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance’s hearing was held on April 2, 2014:

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
…Mr. Friedman, maybe you heard earlier about the case of the three young women in the car in Wisconsin who were killed. One of them was one of my constituents – Natasha Weigel. And following the crash, NHTSA opened up an investigation and found incidences of similar ignition switch problems but was unable to determine what was causing the problem. The report found that this was “such a determination that would most likely require an analysis of the airbag system to determine if in fact the airbag is capable of deploying when the ignition is switched from the ‘on’ position to the ‘accessory’ position. Such an undertaking is beyond the scope of this investigation.”

Mr. Friedman, do you think this report should have raised enough red flags to trigger further investigations into this question?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
This report was one of the pieces of information that did raise concerns and that the panel did consider. At that time, our understanding of airbags indicated that first of all power loss in a crash was not uncommon and that airbag systems were designed to be able to function in those circumstances. Based on that expertise and based on the information we had available, it was determined that there wasn’t sufficient information to open up at the time. This is frankly one of the clear lessons that we are learning from this. A lesson that clearly comes too late that we needed to question that assumption. And going forward, one of the things that I have talked to my staff about and that we’re looking at is how can we better consider remote defect possibilities, how can we better integrate these special crash investigations even further. They’re already part of the process but how do we better integrate them into this process. This was a tragedy.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
And this report, I think, was – the crash was one of the first where they barreled 71-miles-per-hour into a grove of trees. It was one of the first to be linked to the faulty ignition switch. So do you think if you had something better in place it has the potential for trying to prevent these tragedies in the future?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Well, that is without a doubt my goal. One of the challenges in this specific instance was that, as you noted, the vehicle hit trees. The first set of trees that they hit was kind of a softer strike with an unbelted occupant, which is the exact kind of condition where airbags are designed to often not deploy. Because if the driver or passenger is moving forward as the airbag is expanding, it could do more harm than good. More than 200 lives have been lost previously because of that challenge.

And so our understanding of the system indicated that under those conditions, that the conditions of the crash were the more likely reason for non-deployment. But clearly, as I said, we need to re-look at our assumptions and re-look at our understanding of these systems and we are actively doing that. We are talking to automakers to understand – to better understand their algorithms and if there’s a problem out there.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
Investigators are, as you know, still gathering the recall data and records to understand what actually happened here with GM. But based on the records we have so far, one thing we know is that NHTSA is very dependent on the automobile companies for the data and the context that’s needed to tell whether in fact something is an isolated event, a dangerous trend, or a defect. Is it your view that NHTSA has to rely too heavily on auto manufacturers to get this information?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Senator, we rely on auto manufacturers for some information. But we also have significant resources with information that have nothing to do with the automakers. One of the most important pieces of our database are consumer complaints. Right now, we get about 45,000 of those a year, which we look through each and every one. I would like to see that number grow. We have plans and efforts under way to try to get more and more consumers when they see problems to report them to us. There is added data that we get from automakers and we do use that as part of the process. I don’t think we’re too dependent on them because we try to make sure – in this case we did rely on our expertise and our data as part of the process.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
So is it true that you’ve got about 260 complaints about the faulty ignition, is that about right?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
I believe that was one of the numbers that was reported on the ignition switch. At the time what we were trying to understand, what we were looking at was airbag non-deployment. At the time we did not have the information directly linked.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
I know we’re going to find all this out very soon. But you didn’t know it was about ignition switches? You just thought it was some – you were looking at the airbags instead of the –

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
At the time, our focus was trying to understand why airbags may not have been deployed. There were these added complaints about ignition switches or stalling. I believe the 260 number may have been all stalling complaints. I would have to check on that to be sure. It’s not clear that all of those were related to the ignition switch. There are many causes of stalled –

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
Did the airbags not deploy because it wasn’t a traditional crash right away? It just shut down so then the airbags don’t deploy?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
The dynamic of these crashes to the investigators – to our crash investigators indicated that that was the more likely reason. But it’s very possible now that we know what we know that the ignition switch being in the accessory position was the problem. We now have that definitive link from General Motors – a link that if we have had earlier, we would have been able to act.

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation:
…I have something that may help the committee understand this point too. And I have in front of me a copy of the special crash investigation report that I know you’re referring to, Senator, because you’ve from that a sentence or two of the main paragraph on page 7.

It’s encouraging to hear the administrator talk about re-examining processes and specifically he used the term “integrating” special crash investigation reports because we clearly – we, my office – need to understand how the agency intends to do that because we’ve identified that on the basis of certainly this one piece of evidence that you’ve cited as a key concern.

The administrator has spoken to at least the preliminary finding or assessment that the airbags didn’t deploy because of the nature of the impact against softly yielding trees. In fact, the expert engineers conducting this special crash investigation about a year later submitted an amendment to the report that removed that as their initial assessment and said that they couldn’t tell whether it might be that or it might be the loss of power through the ignition system but then such an undertaking was beyond the scope of the investigation and it would require further analysis.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
[Overlapping audio]…It may have been the ignition switch but that’s not what they were asked to investigate? Is that what it is? It seems so strange when you’re –

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation:
It does but it’s probably beyond the scope of how NHTSA has laid out what it wants to get from a special crash investigation.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
Okay. Is there a way where you can change that where you say “We don’t know what happened here. This is very odd that these girls are just driving down the road and suddenly they 71-miles-per-hour surge into trees”? I mean –

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
So the purpose of special crash investigations is to better understand the circumstances of crashes of interests. We were very concerned about airbag non-deployments, which is exactly why we were having special crash investigators go out and gather data and information on these crashes. I do believe that that’s a good process. That is the right process. We also make sure that the special crash investigators and ODI talk to each other. It is the job of the investigator to try to understand whether or not there’s a defect. So SCI is a great tool for gathering the data but then we also need our experts engaged in the process to translate and understand that data.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota):
…The recall process. Manufacturers can voluntarily initiate recalls without waiting for NHTSA to order it or NHTSA can order manufacturers, right, to initiate a recall. However, if they’re going to do that, if they’re actually going to order one, they need this lengthy process that includes holding a public hearing, completing the investigation, and giving the manufacturer time to file a detailed response and perhaps even defending the recall in federal court.

Mr. Friedman, by taking so long to order a recall of these cars, which seems to be rolling out a different one everyday, are we shortchanging Americans and jeopardizing safety?

In other words, when lives are at stake and when manufacturers may be reluctant as it appears to be in this case to initiate a recall if you go back through time on their own, is the time it takes for NHTSA to order a recall a problem?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Senator, the good news here is that you very, very rarely ever have to go to that length. We’re actually potentially involved in such a situation with a car seat manufacturer who has resisted moving forward with some infant seats. But the vast majority of time – almost every single time – the industry does act but sometimes it does take extra pressure. What I would like to see, frankly, is when we provide evidence to an automaker that there’s a defect that they act right away. I would like to see quicker action from automakers. But to be clear, the vast majority of times, we do not have to go through that full process. We can get the recalls much earlier in the process and we very often do.

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