Auto Safety Agency Plans Aggressive Enforcement of Auto Recalls

By David Morgan | June 8, 2015

U.S. auto regulators on Friday acknowledged shortfalls in their probe of a deadly General Motors Co ignition switch defect and unveiled plans for more aggressive enforcement against future car safety problems.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said its staff missed early signs of the ignition problem because they misunderstood the technology and failed to demand a clear account of events from the automaker.

“GM’s responses often contained very little information and included invocations of legal privilege. Rather than push back and request more information, NHTSA analyzed the incomplete responses,” the regulator said in one of two new reports on its internal practices and plans for reform.

The release of the reports coincides with a more aggressive stance by the new NHTSA administrator, Mark Rosekind, who recently announced the largest recall in U.S. history to address defective Takata Corp airbags and heightened scrutiny of the recall practices at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV .

Faulty GM ignition switches could easily be jarred out of position, preventing airbags from deploying in a crash. The result was 109 deaths, over 200 injuries and the recall of 2.6 million vehicles.

Regulators said the automaker first became aware of a problem as early as 2001 but did not acknowledge a defect until 2014.

“GM withheld information, failed to provide timely responses to NHTSA’s requests, and used evasive techniques to distract NHTSA from potential defects,” the agency said.

NHTSA said its staff assumed they were dealing with an airbag problem and discounted alternate findings by other sources. But the agency found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing among its staff and took no steps to discipline those involved.

“You can either have safety or you can have blame,” Rosekind told reporters. “We’re looking for ways for the entire agency and the entire safety system to get better so this stuff doesn’t happen in the future.”

Senators Richard Blumenthal and Edward Markey, both Democrats, welcomed NHTSA’s admission but called for a broader disclosure of auto defect information to the agency and the public.

The agency laid out changes to bring a stronger focus on automakers and parts suppliers and a closer relationship between regulators and plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Rosekind announced a new team of outside experts to advise NHTSA on implementing reforms. The group includes experts from the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The agency also unveiled a new program to cut across bureaucratic barriers and bring the agency’s full expertise to bear on safety risks.

But Rosekind said NHTSA lacks resources, noting the agency has 90 safety enforcement officers to oversee more than 265 million U.S. vehicles. The Federal Aviation Administration has more than 6,000 safety officers and the Federal Railroad Administration nearly 680, he said.

To raise auto safety to an optimal level, Rosekind said Congress should provide funding sought by President Barack Obama. A funding bill for a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives calls for spending about 14 percent less on auto safety than Obama’s budget proposal.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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