The head of the National Highway Trafic Safety Administration (NHTSA), David Friedman, received heavy criticism from members of the U.S. Senate for his agency's slow actions in recalling the faulty ignition switches of General Motors' vehicles.
U.S. Senators wanted to know how NHTSA failed to take into account the numerous reports and information regarding GM's faulty ignition switches that led to at least 19 deaths.
Friedman admitted during the Senate hearing that his agency could have done a better job in identifying the problems.
“There are clearly things, looking back into the history of this, that we need to improve,” Friedman said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill said NHTSA failed to pinpoint the defect even though several people outside the agency had been addressing them the problem. For instance, a Winsconsin highway patrolman had tried to bring up the issue to the agency.
The U.S. Senate also brought up a report arguing the NHTSA had enough data since 2007 to issue a recall.
“We need some admission here that this was not done right. You had citizens who were sleuthing your database on their own. They were going into your database and figuring it out,” said Sen. McCaskill.
Sen. McCaskill and the other member of the panel agreed that GM takes most of the responsibility for at least 19 deaths and several injuries in connection to said defect, but they also addressed that NHTSA's lack of action was a thing to be look upon.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal expressed his insight regarding NHTSA's action.
“I don’t think it was a shrug. I don’t think it was a nod. It was a NHTSA snooze. I think NHTSA nodded off on safety,” Blumenthal said.
During the hearing, Friedman deflected the responsilibity of overseeing the safety problem by pointing at GM.
“NHTSA was actively trying to find the ball, [but] GM was actively trying to hide the ball,” Friedman said.
“Potentially we would’ve gotten more information, but even there, in 2007, based on our look-back, it is not even clear that GM and the folks we engaged with at GM understood the relationship between the ignition switch and the airbag. So it’s possible that we could’ve asked them and they would’ve told us ‘we don’t know’ or ‘no,’” Friedman added.
After the hearing Friedman said that the automotive industry should be more responsive to the NHTSA and the agency will have a zero tolerance policy for automakers that fail to quickly provide defect information.
“There needs to be a new normal in the auto industry in their responsiveness to us. In the past we’ve seen spikes in responsiveness and in recalls, only to fade away afterwards. That’s not acceptable and we’re going to make sure that they understand that that is not acceptable,” Friedman concluded.
On the other hand, Sen. McCaskill said that she was bothered by Friedman's answers. McCaskill added that Friedman was more focused on rebutting media reports that links the NHTSA to GM's faulty ignition switches.