Committee Report Details NHTSA Failures in GM Ignition Switch Recall


Report: NHTSA "must be willing to hold itself accountable and learn from past mistakes"

WASHINGTON, DC – The House Energy and Commerce Committee today released a new report written by the majority staff outlining the findings of its investigation related to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) role in the delay of the General Motors (GM) ignition switch recall. The report identified a number of key failures and missed opportunities by the nation’s automobile safety regulator in analyzing and responding to data and information provided to the agency, which contributed to NHTSA’s inability to identify the safety defect.

The committee opened an investigation into the actions of both GM and NHTSA following the initial recall of certain Chevrolet Cobalt models due to an ignition switch defect which could cause the ignition to inadvertently move from the “run” mode and may prevent air bags from deploying in affected vehicles. The committee’s investigation, along with GM’s internal investigation conducted by Anton Valukas, revealed a series of failures by the company to identify and remedy this defect, which contributed to tragic injuries and the loss of life. But the committee’s investigation also uncovered failures and critical mistakes by NHTSA, which allowed this fatal problem to fester unresolved for over a decade. 

“Our investigation helped expose a long list of failures by GM that led to this colossal safety breakdown. But our work also revealed that some of the same pervasive problems within the company also plagued its regulator. NHTSA too suffered from a lack of accountability, poor information sharing, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the vehicles, all of which contributed to the failure to identify and fix this deadly defect. Both GM and NHTSA had a responsibility to act, and both share culpability in this safety failure. While NHTSA now complains about GM’s switch, it seems NHTSA was asleep at the switch too,” said Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-PA).

“It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn’t identify the warnings. NHTSA exists not just to process what the company finds, but to dig deeper. They failed. We’ll keep looking for answers, and keep working toward solutions – whether it means changing our laws or pressing for change at the companies that follow them and the agencies that enforce them – but we know for sure that NHTSA was part of the problem and is going to have to be part of the solution,” said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI).

As outlined in the report, the committee’s findings revealed that NHTSA had ample information to identify a potential safety defect as early as 2007, including a State Trooper report linking air bags and the ignition switch and three independent investigations commissioned by the agency involving the non-deployment of frontal airbags in the Cobalt. NHTSA failed to follow up on the information it was provided and also lacked an understanding of the advanced vehicle systems that were implemented in response to the agency’s own standards.

The committee identified key problems in the agency’s practices that contributed to the failure of NHTSA to identify the safety defect, including a failure to keep pace with the industry it regulates, information silos, a culture that minimizes accountability, and a tendency to get overwhelmed or distracted by specific issues.

While GM has taken some steps to fix its mistakes, it does not appear NHTSA has taken any corrective actions. The report notes “five months later, there is no evidence, at least publicly, that anything has changed at the agency. 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.”

The committee’s report concludes, “The agency’s repeated failure to identify, let alone explore, the potential defect theory related to the ignition switch — even after it was spelled out in a report the agency commissioned — is inexcusable. This was compounded by NHTSA staff’s lack of knowledge and awareness regarding the evolution of vehicle safety systems they regulate. Regulators should not be held to a different standard. NHTSA’s conduct needs to reflect its mission and serve as a model to those it regulates.  The agency, therefore, must be willing to hold itself accountable and learn from past mistakes.”

To view the committee’s full report, click HERE.

To view a list of supporting documents, click HERE.