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

Partial transcript of Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada) 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. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
…Mr. Friedman, I have to admit I’m a little frustrated with your administration. I had sent a letter in anticipation of getting the results to questions prior to this hearing, and I think I was assured it would come before today, last night in particular, and of course that didn’t happen. So with the Chairman’s permission, I will submit the questions and the letter to the record if there’s no objection.

And I believe I have no other alternative than to ask you the questions here and now if I can’t get it in writing.

So the first question I had – did GM report all consumer complaints related to the stalling incidents and airbag failures that it considered in the recall to NHTSA?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Senator, first if I may apologize. I’m sorry we’re not able to get you the answers to your questions. I know the same is the case with several other members. Our focus on making that we were addressing the safety issues and responding to the committee has taken up a significant amount of our time but I will get you a response to your letter this week.

But in terms of your question. General Motors reports to us the counts of complaints, but they do not provide to us the detailed complaints themselves.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
So what actions do you take based on that information?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Well, we use that information – the number of their complaints – along with a wide variety of other pieces of information both that they provide and that we gather ourselves through our complaint database, through our special crash investigation database, through industry website and other resources. We look at that data. We have an early warning division that is focused exclusively on looking at the early warning data, which would include complaint numbers and other data. And we have a defects assessment division that focuses on consumer complaints in compiling the information.

We gathered that data, and in this case, we did. There were clear warning signs and concerns and therefore an expert panel was convened based on those concerns to determine after looking more deeply into the issue whether or not there was sufficient information to open up an investigation.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Any conclusions from that expert panel?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
In that expert panel, the decision was made not to open an investigation based on a couple of key factors. The first is that the Cobalt and Ion did not stand out when it came to airbag non-deployment complaints compared to their peers. They were a little bit above average but they did not stand out. Second, in looking at the detailed crash investigations – the two that were available at the time – they were inconclusive as to the cause of the airbag non-deployment.

Airbags are – understandably many people expect airbags to deploy in any frontal crash for example, but they’re actually designed to only deploy when they will help the occupant and not cause more harm than good.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
When were those conclusions made?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
In 2007. That was the first time we looked at it.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
So share with me what the threshold – what threshold does NHTSA use to determine whether a complaint like this warrants further investigation?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Senator, we don’t have a specific threshold. Each case is different. In cases where a defect is clear, all it takes is one and we will act on that one case if there’s clear evidence of a defect. If there’s not, we look for further evidence, we look for trends. But we consciously do not have a specific threshold because each case is different.

If there’s a vehicle where only 5,000 are sold per year and we see one incident, that may be sufficient to open an investigation. If there’s a vehicle where there’s 500,000 sold in a year, if there’s one incident and it’s a clear defect, we will open. But if there’s a larger number and it’s not a clear defect trend, we may not open it. It does depend on the facts of the case.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
So you’re saying in this particular case that you couldn’t tell me how many additional incidents or reports would be necessary in order for NHTSA to take further action?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
We rely on a combination of our engineering expertise, data indicating whether or not there is a significant trend. So if the number of complaints had gone up significantly, that would have caused us to act. In fact, what happened when we looked at this again in 2010, the complaint rate overall went down.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Mr. Friedman, how long have you been the acting director?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
I’ve been the acting administrator just over two months.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
What was your prior experience with NHTSA?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Prior to that I was the deputy administrator for about eight months.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Anything prior to that with NHTSA?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Prior to that, I worked for a non-profit organization and we engaged on fuel economy and fuel economy and safety related issues where they overlapped. I worked there for about –

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
…All right. Probably one of the biggest complaints when I go home talking to businesses and companies is government interference and the strong hand of government themselves and some of the regulations.

Could you describe to me what the relationship between NHTSA and GM has been in the past?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Our relationship has been a relationship you’d expect between a regulator and a regulated entity. Our goal as part of that relationship is to ensure that we are catching any defect that are involved, that we’re discussing with them possible safety technologies, and that we’re ensuring that they are providing information to us and we are raising concerns to them when appropriate.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Are you comfortable with the relationship?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
I would like to see from all automakers increased efforts to be responsive when NHTSA reaches out on defect issues. I would like to have the confidence that they are all sharing all the information that they have.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Do you have that confidence today?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
I think clearly the Toyota case indicates that no I should not fully have that confidence because that is a clear case where in fact there was a part number change – a part change that was not revealed. It’s also one of the reasons why I’m concerned in this case and one of the reasons why we have opened an investigation into the automakers.

In fact, over the last five years, we’ve issued record fines against automakers not just Toyota but Ford as well and at least one other manufacturer because we were concerned that they did not act properly under the law, and we found that they did not act properly under the law.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Is the Secretary of Transportation consulted with decisions regarding incident investigations?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
That’s a very broad question. In terms of – there are some investigations that the Secretary of Transportation is made aware of. But certainly in the defects assessment panels or the defects panels, the Secretary of Transportation is not involved in that decision-making process.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Was he involved in this one?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
No.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
He was not.

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
And just to be clear, there was a panel that happened in 2007 that’s the panel that we’re discussing, and absolutely not.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Was anyone in the Secretary’s office consulted?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
No.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Did any government official outside the Department of Transportation consult or provide input of the decision not to move forward in 2007 to 2010?

David Friedman, Acting Administrator of NHTSA:
Not that I’m aware of, no. That would not be our standard process.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Mr. Scovel, let me ask you the same question. In your investigation, did you check to see – or was that part of your broad scope of things to find out what influences may or may not have occurred in 2007 – 2010?

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation:
Senator, it was not part of the audit that we conducted in the 2010-2011 time frame, which was prompted most immediately by the Toyota problems. Going forward, I can tell you that in the current audit, which the Secretary has requested us to do, we will be looking at everything that NHTSA knew, what it didn’t know, when it knew it and what actions it took in response to that. Should we come across any documentation – and our auditors are trained and will be instructed to be on the lookout for such matters, we will take them under cognizance and will refer them to the proper authority.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Including other government process of the decision-making process?

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation:
Yes, sir.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada):
Very good.

###

Learn More:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.