Former head rips NHTSA for inactivity on GM recall – USA TODAY

Posted: Sunday, March 09, 2014

A former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is asking for a probe of why NHTSA knew as early as 2007 about a potentially fatal problem with General Motors ignition switches, but didn’t demand a recall.

Now a safety activist, Joan Claybrook says the safety agency “failed to carry out the law” when it didn’t force GM to fix the problem back then.

GM recalled 1.37 million cars in the U.S. last month because faulty ignition switches can shut off power to the front airbags. GM says it knows of 31 crashes and 13 deaths linked to the fault.

Claybrook says in a letter to the inspector general with responsibility for the agency that “NHTSA has responsibility for failing to order a recall by early 2007, when it knew what the defect was and how to fix it.”

She asked the Department of Transportation, of which NHTSA is a unit, to probe “the failure of” NHTSA “to require the recall” earlier. GM last month recalled the 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2007 Pontiac G5, 2003-07 Saturn Ion, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. Dealers will replace ignition switches on those models starting next month.

The switches unexpectedly can move from “run” into “accessory,” killing power to the airbags and other systems. Heavy key rings can exacerbate the problem. GM says drivers awaiting the fix should be sure nothing is attached to their ignition keys.

NHTSA did not immediately respond to Claybrook’s slap. But the agency in past cases has noted that it’s easy, in hindsight, to say a problem should have been obvious, but at the time, the cases might have been so few that they were statistically inconsequential and wouldn’t have attracted attention.

Other circumstances often can make it hard to fault the vehicle, such as driver intoxication, speeds high enough that survival is unlikely or types of crashes where the front airbags would not have deployed.

In the GM case, NHTSA paid extraordinary attention. It triggered three Special Crash Investigations, which are probes performed by outside investigators working under contract and reporting to NHTSA and the DOT.

Claybrook says that makes it even more unlikely that NHTSA should not have seen the problem clearly.

The agency commissioned the SCIs because it wanted to know why then-new “smart” airbags were failing to deploy in some GM crashes: The probes:

•Aug. 15, 2005, into a July 29, 2005, Maryland crash of a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that killed Amber Marie Rose, 16.

That report, by Calspan Research of Buffalo, NY, said the ignition switch was in “accessory” and the driver’s airbag did not deploy.

The report also noted that the driver was unbelted, impaired by alcohol, accelerating under wide-open throttle to 69 mph in a 25-mph residential area, and was on the wrong side of the street when the car slammed into trees and rolled.

NHTSA and GM met and discussed the crash in 2007, according to GM’s own timeline.

•Nov. 26, 2006, into the October 2006 crash of a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that killed Amy Beskau, 15, of Wisconsin, a front-seat passenger. A rear-seat passenger also died, The driver survived. None was wearing safety belts.

The SCI report in April 2007, by the Indiana University Transportation Research Center, said the switch was in “accessory” and the bags didn’t deploy.

In that case, the driver veered off the road at 71 mph. The car hit a driveway and flew 59 feet before clipping a utility box on the ground and slamming a grove of trees at about 55 mph.

The report noted, however, at least six complaints in the NHTSA database at the time about power being lost when the keys moved inadvertently to “accessory.”

•March 15, 2004, into the crash of a 2004 Saturn Ion in Pennsylvania in January of 2004. No one was killed. The SCI report by Calspan noted that the crash was severe enough that the bags “probably” should have deployed, but didn’t.

The position of the ignition switch wasn’t noted, but Calspan reported anomalies in the data from the car’s “black box” recorder consistent with a loss of engine power prior to the crash.

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