The lies they told about safety

September 18, 2014

General Motors is continuing to try to evade responsibility for its deadly negligence, but there's blood on the hands of a federal regulatory agency, too, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

IF GM officials are ever made to pay for their callous disregard for human life--in allowing millions of cars with a deadly ignition defect on the road without notifying customers--they have a partner in crime that should be held responsible, too. It's the government agency that is supposed to regulate auto companies: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

A report released this week by House Energy and Commerce Committee, makes the $10.2 million agency look like the fumbling small-town deputies of the Andy Griffith Show--except the NHTSA let down drivers all over the country who sat behind the wheels of potentially deadly GM cars.

In February, GM began announcing the recall of several models after it was revealed that a defect in the ignition switch that could cause the car's power to turn off while it was being driven, causing the brakes, steering wheel and airbags to fail. Over time, more models were added to the recall list, which now numbers 16.5 million vehicles. It was also revealed that the automaker had known about the defect for more than a decade, but did nothing about it, citing the fix to be too expensive and time-consuming.

One of GM's defective ignition mechanisms on display
One of GM's defective ignition mechanisms on display

On September 15, GM lawyer Kenneth Feinberg announced that 19 families would receive payouts from the company--which was larger than GM CEO Mary Barra's estimate during congressional hearings that the defect was responsible for 13 deaths, but not much larger. It is many times fewer than the estimates of family members whose loved ones died in GM cars.

Some 125 families have so far filed death compensation claims related to the GM ignition switch, according to a report by Bloomberg. Fifty-eight more claims were filed for crash victims who suffered serious injury, and 262 more for crashes that led to some kind of hospitalization. This makes a total of 445 to date.

The compensation program, at, is only open for submissions until December 31, even though it was only launched on August 5.

Put another way: GM officials took years to admit their negligence while people drove in unsafe vehicles--but family members get less than five months to make a claim against the giant multinational.

FOR MORE than a decade, GM officials refused to take responsibility for the lives they put in peril when they decided to let the defect go unchanged and unreported--something that should surprise no one who has followed the GM recall story. But the government agency in charge of regulating GM has blood on its hands, too.

At hearings in Washington on September 16, senators turned their attention to the NHTSA for letting GM go for years without being challenged. They cited a 2007 report by a Wisconsin state patrol officer who reported that the ignition had shifted out of the "run" mode in an accident killing two teenagers--what has now become a familiar sign of the GM ignition switch defect.

The NHTSA ignored the report. And that's not the only, as revealed in a recent report by the New York Times demonstrating a culture of incompetence at the agency, which was so tied to the auto industry that it protected the people it was supposed to be keeping an eye on.

In case after case, the NHTSA would get thousands of complaints about a defect, but stall on doing anything. As for GM, the agency had logged more than 5,000 ignition complaints and 2,000 complaints about stalling by the time the company finally announced the recall. Some of these complaints came "from consumers who had picked up on patterns in the agency's database that its own investigators missed or did not look for," the Times reported.

The NHTSA got the first complains about GM cars stalling as early as 1997--but starting in May 2000, it repeatedly told drivers there was "insufficient evidence" to open an investigation. The refusal to investigate continued up to the month before the recall began.

The NHTSA also let car companies off the hook during its investigation by making some questions to automakers "optional." What questions? The kind that most people would find important in the case of accident inquiries, such as: "What may have caused the accident?"

The Times reviewed over 100 death inquiries directed to General Motors, Chrysler and Ford in one quarter of 2012, and discovered only four times when the automaker responded to the question--and exactly none in which a defect was identified.

Examples of agency ineptitude bordered on the absurd--as when acting director David Friedman appeared before Congress in April and admitted he didn't know the NHTSA could issue subpoenas.

According to the New York Times, the NHTSA spends as much of its funding on rating new cars--a good safety rating can be a real selling point for dealers--as it did investigating potential safety defects. The NHTSA's budget for investigating safety defects has stayed at just 1 percent of its total budget for the last six years, as funding for the ratings program increased. Thus, the agency's real priorities are clear: help the auto industry sell cars, rather than keep drivers safe.

From 2001 to 2010, the agency awarded four or five stars to new cars 87 percent of the time. From 2011 to today, that number has increased to 92 percent. Asked about the ever-increasing top ratings, the NHTSA replied to the Times in an e-mail, "Automakers routinely use our star information in their advertising. Safety sells."

But if safety sells for auto companies, then the opposite is true: Lying about safety kills.

Congress has made big theater out of putting a few GM officials on the hot seat, but unless real changes are made at the NHTSA, all the indignant speeches in the world won't be worth the hot air they're delivered with. That will just bring us back to where we started--with a "watchdog" agency that isn't protecting anyone but the auto industry.

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