Transcript: Testimony of DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel on GM’s ignition switch recall

Partial transcript of testimony of Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation, 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:

Chairman McCaskill, Ranking Member Heller, members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify at this important hearing on vehicle safety.

Since 2002, our office has identified opportunities for NHTSA to improve its efforts to address safety defects.

Today, I will focus on NHTSA’s actions to address major weaknesses we reported in 2011. I will also discuss how our work can help lead to strong actions against automakers that choose to withhold critical safety data from NHTSA.

In 2011, we reported that NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation needed improvement in four key areas.

First area concerns one of ODI’s most critical functions – to determine when to investigate allegations of safety defects. ODI did not adequately track its disposition of consumer complaints or document decisions about whether to investigate, leading its decisions open to interpretation and subject to questions after the fact.

NHTSA completed actions to address the three recommendations we made to improve ODI’s process for recommending investigations, including modifying its simple database for safety defect information to track its reviews of consumer complaints.

We have [found] similar process weaknesses in ODI’s documentations in open investigations. Some investigation files did not include sufficient information on meetings with manufacturers, consumer complaint identification numbers, or a determination of testing needs. In one investigation, ODI did not sufficiently document the basis for its decision to close the case.

Consistent with our recommendation to strengthen controls, NHTSA developed a standard checklist for documenting the evidence investigators collect.

ODI also lacked a systematic process for determining when to use third party assistance to test for potential mechanical or electronic defects and to validate information manufacturers provide. In response to our recommendation, NHTSA established framework for determining when third-party assistance should be used.

Finally, NHTSA lacked processes for ensuring an adequate and well-trained investigative workforce. In response to our recommendations, NHTSA developed a formal training program to help ensure investigators stay current on technology advancements in the automotive industry and plans to complete by the end of May a workforce assessment to determine the number and most effective mix of staff needed to achieve ODI’s objectives.

We believe NHTSA’s enhanced processes will put the agency in a better position to identify and investigate vehicle safety defects. However, the success of these process improvements will depend on how effectively ODI uses and applies them when conducting its analyses and investigations.

At the Secretary’s request, we will initiate an audit building on our previous reviews of NHTSA’s efforts to identify and investigate vehicle safety defects.

Despite the Department’s best efforts to improve its safety defect analyses and investigations, vehicle safety will remain a concern if automakers conceal vital information.

The Toyota case perfectly demonstrates the risk involved when automakers withhold critical safety data and fail to report defects to NHTSA.

Our investigators participated in a multi-agency criminal probe of Toyota, reviewing approximately 400,000 documents and interviewing more than 100 individuals.

Last month, Toyota forfeited $1.2 billion for intentionally concealing information on vehicle defects from NHTSA. This penalty – the largest of its kind – sends a clear message to auto manufacturers safety is and will remain DOT and OIG’s highest priority. To this end, we expect the industry to be vigilant and forthcoming to keep the public safe.

We will continue to assess NHTSA’s efforts to identify and investigate vehicle safety defects and stand ready to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by auto manufacturers.

Finally, Chairman McCaskill, with you permission, I would like to offer these words to the families and friends of those who have been lost in crashes involving GM’s defective ignition switches. I offer you my deeply sympathy.

My staff and the Office of the Inspector General and I are resolved to learn what NHTSA knew of this safety defect, when it knew it, and what actions NHTSA took to address it.

We will also examine NHTSA’s current safety defect investigation processes and make recommendations for improvement.

The Secretary has asked us for this. The Congress expects this of us. And you – the family and friends and victims – deserve this of us. I give you my word we will do our duty.

This concludes my prepared statement. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.


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