NHTSA accuses General Motors of concealing information linking airbag non-deployment to ignition switch defect

NHTSA's Acting Administrator David Friedman. SOURCE: commerce.senate.gov

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration accused General Motors of concealing critical information linking airbag non-deployment to the ignition switch defect that prompted a recall of more than 2 million vehicles earlier this year.

The ignition switch defect, which could cause vehicles to suddenly turn off, has been attributed to 13 deaths. NHTSA has been roundly criticized by lawmakers for not conducting a full investigation into the faulty ignition switches.

Read more: Timeline of General Motors ignition switch recall

At the hearing before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance, NHTSA defended its actions and blamed GM’s failure to provide timely information for the inconclusive findings that led NHTSA to determine that a full investigation was not warranted.

“Our ability to find defects also requires automakers to act in good faith and provide information on time,” said NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman. “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.”

Friedman explained that NHTSA opened an inquiry in 2007 on airbag non-deployment involving GM vehicles – specifically the Chevy Cobalt and Saturn Ion – based on consumer complaints and early warning data.

An expert panel reviewed the data and concluded that “neither the Cobalt nor the Ion stood out when compared to similar vehicles” that failed to deploy airbags in certain crashes.

Although two special crash investigation reports reviewed by the expert panel noted that the power was in “accessory mode” – or shut off – NHTSA could not conclusively tie the airbag non-deployment to the ignition switch defect, citing off-road conditions and “relatively small collisions” involving the crashes that were reviewed.

“Based on the information we had available, it was determined that there wasn’t sufficient information to open up [an investigation] at the time,” said Friedman. “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 we can better consider remote defect possibilities, how can we better integrate these special crash investigations further.”

But Friedman stressed that GM did not inform NHTSA of the new ignition switch that was approved by the automaker a year before the expert panel review. The new switch, which had a higher torque, was used in model year 2008-2011 vehicles but kept the same product number as the older defective switch.

“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,” said Friedman. “Had this information been available earlier, it would have likely changed NHTSA’s approach to this issue.”

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