Talking Cars

Federal officials say the agency charged with ensuring the safety of cars in America was missing key information when it decided against a deeper investigation of General Motors in 2007.

David Friedman (pictured), the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Monday that the agency didn't have knowledge of a link between airbag non-deployments and faulty ignition switches. He said GM could have helped make the connection.

"GM had critical information that would have helped identify this defect," Friedman said in remarks released ahead of his scheduled testimony before a Congressional subcommittee Tuesday. Both Friedman and General Motors CEO Mary Barra are scheduled to appear and answer questions before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee.

"GM had critical information that would have helped identify this defect." – David Friedman, NHTSA Administrator

His comments came one day after a memo released by the committee indicated that a senior NHTSA investigator wanted to probe a rash of fatalities, complaints and field reports related to the problems in November 2007. NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation opted not to open an investigation.

Problems with the faulty ignition switches remained largely unknown until February of this year, when General Motors announced a recall, which so far has affected 2.5 million vehicles. Documents have shown General Motors was aware of the ignition-switch defect as early as 2001 – four years before the affected cars were even sold.

At least 13 people have died as a result of crashes caused by the defect. Two Congressional committees, the Department of Justice and NHTSA are all investigating the delay in General Motors response to the problem.

"I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program, but I can tell you that we will find out," GM CEO Mary Barra said, in an advance copy of her prepared remarks. "When we have answers, we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators and with our customers."

At the request of the Department of Transportation Secretary, an inspector general is also investigating NHTSA's own effectiveness at spotting the deadly trend and bringing enforcement.

On Monday, former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook criticized the agency for failing to act.

"NHTSA has fallen into a bureaucratic quagmire that it uses to avoid opening investigations and determining safety defects while people are dying unnecessarily on the highway," she said. "...It is past time for NHTSA to put the public first in its safety defect decisions."

Friedman, who took over as NHTSA's chief administrator in January, said there was not sufficient evidence at the time. He said the 51 employees of the agency's Office of Defects Investigation have made significant efforts that result in the annual recall of roughly nine million defective vehicles.

"We believe our defects investigation program and recalls process has functioned extremely well over the years in identifying defects that create unreasonable risks and ensuring that recalls occur whenever appropriate," he said. "Even so, we continually seek ways to improve."