Transcript: Testimony of NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman on GM’s ignition switch recall

Partial transcript of testimony of David Friedman, Acting Administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration [NHTSA], 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 committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today.

To begin, I would like to say that on behalf of everyone at NHTSA, we are deeply saddened by the lives lost in crashes involving the General Motors ignition switch defect. The victims, families, and friends – some of whom I know were at the hearing yesterday and some who may be here today – have suffered greatly and I’m deeply sorry for their loss.

Safety is NHTSA’s top priority. And our employees go to work everyday trying to prevent tragedies like these. Our work in reducing dangerous behaviors behind the wheel, improving the safety of vehicles, and addressing safety defects has helped reduce highway fatalities to historic lows not seen since 1950.

In the case of the recently recalled General Motors vehicles, we are first focused on safety and ensuring the General Motors identifies all vehicles with a defective ignition switch, fixes these vehicles quickly, and is doing all it can to inform consumers about how to keep themselves safe.

We are also investigating whether General Motors met its responsibilities to report and address this defect as required under federal law. If it failed to do so, we will hold General Motors accountable as we have in other cases over the last five years which have led to record fines on automakers.

Internally at NHTSA and the Department, we have already begun a review of our actions and assumptions in this case to further our ability to address potential defects.

Today, I will share what I’ve learned so far.

In this case, NHTSA used consumer complaints and early warning data, three special crash investigations on the Cobalt, industry websites, and agency expertise on airbag technology. Some of that information did raise concerns about airbag non-deployment in these vehicles.

So in 2007, we convened an expert panel to review that information.

Our consumer complaint data on injury crashes with airbag non-deployments showed that neither the Cobalt nor the Ion stood out when compared to similar vehicles.

The two SCI crash reports that we reviewed at the time were inconclusive on the cause of non-deployment. The reports noted that the airbags did not deploy and the power was in accessory mode but these crashes involved unbelted occupants and off-road conditions that began with relatively small collisions where by design airbags are less likely to deploy in order to avoid doing more harm than good.

Further, power loss is not uncommon in crashes where airbags deploy and did not stand out as a reason for non-deployment.

In light of these factors, NHTSA did not open an investigation.

We continued monitoring the data, however, and in 2010 found that the related consumer complaint rate for the Cobalt had decreased by nearly half since the 2007 review.

Based on our engineering expertise and our processes, the data available to NHTSA at the time was not sufficient to warrant a formal investigation.

So the question we’re all asking is what does this all mean? From my perspective, it means that NHTSA was concerned and engaged on this issue.

This was a difficult case where we used tools and expertise that over the last decade have successfully resulted in 1,299 recalls including 35 recalls on airbag non-deployments alone.

Those tools and expertise have served us well and we will continue to rely on them but also improve them.

For example, we have already invested in advanced computer tools to improve our ability to spot defects and trends and are planning to expand that effort.

But what we now know also clearly means that we need to challenge our assumptions and look at how we handle difficult cases like this going forward.

So we are looking to better understand how manufacturers deal with vehicle power loss and airbags, especially when the ignition switch is turned.

We are also considering ways to improve the use of crash investigations in identifying defects. We are reviewing ways to address what appear to be remote defect possibilities and evaluating our approach to engaging manufacturers in all stages of our defects process.

Between these efforts and those of the Department’s Inspector General, I know we will continue to improve our ability to identify vehicle defects and ensure they are fixed.

But I want to close on one important note. Our ability to find defects also requires automakers to act in good faith and provide information on time.

General Motors has now provided new information definitively linking airbag non-deployment to faulty ignition switches, identifying the part change, and indicating potentially critical supplier conversations on airbags.

Had this information been available earlier it would have likely changed NHTSA’s approach to this issue.

The reality, however, is both NHTSA and the auto industry as a whole must look to improve.

Madam Chairman, Ranking Member, members of the committee, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to testify before you today. Thank you.
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