NHTSA's incompetence played a role in allowing the General Motors ignition switch crisis to go undetected for years.

Five months after the top official at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration promised to reform the federal agency charged with keeping motorists safe, it remains mired in dysfunction and inaction.

A report from the House Energy and Commerce committee released Tuesday found that NHTSA's incompetence played a role in allowing the General Motors ignition switch crisis to go undetected for years, and says that the agency continues to lag behind in its efforts to improve its performance.

"There is no evidence, at least publicly, that anything has changed at the agency," the report said. "No one has been held accountable and no substantial changes have been made. NHTSA and its employees admit they made mistakes but the lack of urgency in identifying and resolving those shortcomings raises questions about the agency's commitment to learning from this recall."

Following the release of the report, David Friedman, now NHTSA's deputy administrator, appeared before a Senate committee investigating the agency's role in the deadly GM problem. Senators wanted to know how the agency missed warning signs and failed to appreciate critical pieces of information in a decade-long string of missteps and missed opportunities that prolonged discovery of an ignition-switch defect responsible for killing at least 19 motorists.
In the hearings, Friedman deflected responsibility for the handling of the General Motors problems. In his testimony, he stopped short of issuing the "I'm sorry" that several Congressmen had asked him to issue to American motorists. Pressed at another point, he would not stipulate that a car stalling in traffic presented a serious safety problem.

'A Fundamental Failure'

"I think we're all frustrated with you, Mr. Friedman, at this point," Senator Claire McCaskill, (D-Missouri) said. "It's very hard to sit through this hearing and watch you rationalize and excuse a regulatory agency. ... Why you can't take a measure of responsibility for this has us, frankly, scratching our heads."

At times, Friedman vigorously defended the agency's handling of everything from the way it leans on automakers to produce relevant information for investigators to the agency's five-star crash-test rating system, which can in some cases give high safety scores to vehicles that have open safety recalls. When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) said that NHTSA had shrugged off numerous opportunities to act as a legitimate watchdog for consumers, Friedman bristled in his response.

"What we have here at NHTSA is a fundamental failure to deal with the essential issue of the priority American people put on safety in automobiles." – Sen. Ed Markey

"NHTSA did not shrug," he said. "NHTSA forcing Chrysler to recall vehicles it did not want to recall. NHTSA forcing Graco to recall car seats is not a shrug, NHTSA diving into this issue looking at the data and following the data is not a shrug."

But Markey was unswayed. "What we have here at NHTSA is a fundamental failure to deal with the essential issue of the priority American people put on safety in automobiles," he said to Friedman. "You're missing the point. You're missing how people view this issue. All I can say to you, Mr. Friedman, is they want a cop on the beat."

Friedman had been deputy administrator at NHTSA until January. When former administrator David Strickland left to work for a law firm that lobbies on behalf of automakers, Friedman took the top role on an interim basis. But his interim term has expired, so he's technically back to being the deputy administrator, even as he still retains the same authority as the acting administrator.

Members of the House offered many of the same criticisms as their colleagues across Capitol Hill.

In investigating GM, the House report said NHTSA lacked a fundamental understanding of how airbag systems operated and that the agency did not hold itself to the same standard of accountability as the automakers it regulates. "There is a tendency to deflect blame and point the finger at others rather than accept responsibility and learn from its own failures," the report said. "It is no different than the 'GM Salute.'"

Although General Motors was aware of the problem for more than a decade, no recall was issued for millions of vehicles, including the Chevy Cobalt and Saturn Ion that had ignition switches that could inadvertently move from the "run" to "accessory" position. As a result of this move, both the airbags and engine could be turned off, leaving passengers vulnerable in a dangerous situation. A report prepared for GM earlier this year described the manner in which company employees passed responsibility for the problems as 'the GM Salute.'

House: NHTSA Missed Chances To ID Fatal Problem

"It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn't identify the warnings." – Rep. Fred Upton

At NHTSA, the House says the culture was no different.

A 2007 report from a Wisconsin state trooper who made the link between ignition switches in the accessory position and airbag non-deployment in crashes went unnoticed, according to the report. Even when investigators in the agency's Office of Defects Investigation reviewed the report along with a Technical Service Bulleting about low torque in certain GM ignition switches, nothing happened.

When the Kansas City Star ran a series of stories focused on the number of fatal accidents in which airbags failed to deploy in 2007, NHTSA objected to the conclusions reached, although the agency privately established an internal group to examine the issue, according to the report. But no significant conclusions were reached. Twice in four years, the ODI staff and other NHTSA employees spent time on airbag evaluations that ultimately "went nowhere."

"NHTSA likewise had critical information in its possession which pointed to this defect," the House report said. "Whether the information was not understood, overlooked or lost in organizational stove-pipes, the agency's failure to follow-up on this information contributed to NHTSA's inability to identify this defect."

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan) was disappointed in NHTSA's mishandling of the ignition-switch problem.

"It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn't identify the warnings," he said. "NHTSA exists not just to process what the company finds, but to dig deeper. They failed."

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