Keyed up With Anticipation: Smart Key Hazards Still Unresolved

Five and a half years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration vowed that it was going to get on top of the keyless ignition safety issue, publishing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The NPRM acknowledged that keyless ignitions, for all of their purported convenience, had introduced several safety hazards not associated with mechanical key systems – among them, rollaways, when drivers shut off the engine and exit without locking the shift lever in the “Park” position and carbon monoxide poisonings from drivers who inadvertently leave the engine running.

GM Airbag Non-Deployments: What the NHTSA Data Really Show

Since the General Motors ignition switch debacle blew wide open last spring, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has defended its years-long failure to recall the deadly vehicles by arguing that several other vehicle models had more consumer injury-crash complaints related to airbag non-deployment (ABND) than either the 2005-2006 Cobalt or the 2003-2005 Ion. But a new analysis has shown NHTSA is hanging its hat on an unscientific analysis of data that doesn’t support its claim.

NHTSA’s Message to the Defense: Call Us Before We Call You

This week, while heads were rolling out the doors of the RenCen (GM headquarters) in downtown Detroit, the Chief Counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was laying down the law for defense lawyers at a Chicago legal conference.

Amid the presentations at the American Conference Institute’s 7th Annual Summit on Defending & Managing Automotive Product Liability Litigation devoted to defeating class-actions, the liability of autonomous cars and one of our personal faves –tire aging (with a shout-out to SRS’ Sean Kane!), was a warning from the government.

First, Chief Counsel O. Kevin Vincent lulled them with a feel-good “rah-rah-ree” paean to industry. And then, he made the hair on the back of their necks rise: A manufacturer’s obligation to report a defect within five days of its discovery is the law, and after a long hiatus from doing its job, NHTSA intended to take “an aggressive stance” in enforcing it.

The first offense line in the discovery of a defect was not the Office of Defects Investigation, Vincent said. It was the manufacturers themselves.

“We don’t have analysts, but your clients do. You all have ability to find these defects,” he said.

A manufacturer cannot delay a defect finding, while a safety problem meanders through an internal process involving multiple committees. It cannot hide its knowledge behind a wall of attorney work product and attorney-client privilege. It cannot wait until it’s gotten the supply chain ready to implement the recall.

And it better not wait until after it settles a plaintiff’s case for big bucks. The TREAD Act obligated NHTSA to “follow up on civil litigation that sends up red flags,” he said.  And they’d be looking for signs of foot-dragging in large civil litigation settlements. Not right away, certainly. Civil actions take years, he said. (This gives the safety problem plenty of time to fester.) How much of a settlement was enough to catch NHTSA’s attention? Vincent wouldn’t name a figure.

Melton Family Charges GM with Fraud; Asks for Sanctions

The parents of Brooke Melton, who died in March 2010 crash caused by a well-known ignition switch defect, returned to a Georgia state court, charging General Motors with fraudulent concealment and perjury in the civil liability case that was settled in September. And, just for good measure, they’ve filed a sanctions motion, via their attorneys Lance Cooper and Jere Beasley for discovery abuse and spoliation of evidence.

The Melton case has unleashed a world of hurt on General Motors – an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Congressional oversight, class action lawsuits and general opprobrium. The company knew for nearly a decade that a loose ignition switch in six models – including the 2005-2007 Cobalt – could move from the “Run” to “Accessory” or “Off” position, turning off the power steering, anti-lock brakes and disabling the airbags, before recalling 1.6 million vehicles in North America. At least 13 deaths have been linked to the defect. The decade-long narrative of what GM knew, when it knew it, how it responded to the problem – or not – included the revelation that one of the obstacles to pinpointing the defect was a design change to the ignition switch that GM originally blamed on the supplier, but no change in the part number – a huge No-No.

In the face of a document showing that the Cobalt's lead design engineer Ray DeGiorgio signed off on the new ignition switch without assigning a new part number, GM has since admitted that he may have lied under oath.

Markey Calls for NHTSA Transparency

Documents released Wednesday by Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey show that Wisconsin State Police came up with the same two-and-two as NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigation team during its 2007 investigation of a 2005 Chevy Cobalt crash that led to two deaths.  Too bad neither NHTSA nor GM thought they added up to four.

On October 24, 2006, Megan Ungar-Kerns, 17, was at the wheel of her 2005 Cobalt, returning from a trip to Walmart on a rural Wisconsin highway, when her vehicle suddenly drifted off the roadway at about 60 mph. The Cobalt hit a raised driveway and sailed through the air about 60 feet, before striking a telephone pole and two trees. The trio was not wearing their seatbelts and no airbags deployed. Natasha Weigel, 18, and Amy Lynn Radebaker died of their injuries. Ungar-Kerns survived with permanent injuries.

A crash investigation report issued by the Wisconsin State Police in February, noted the October 2006 GM Technical Service Bulletin about inadvertent power loss due to the ignition switch moving from the run to accessory position. They determined no other cause of the crash:

“The two front seat airbags did not deploy. It appears that the ignition switch had somehow been turned from the run position to accessory prior to the collision with the trees,” the report stated.

Markey released it and a few other documents that GM submitted to NHTSA, as part of the Death Investigation (DI), during a transportation appropriations hearing held by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx was the sole witness. The report didn’t add much new to the known narrative, but spotlighted legislation he has sponsored with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal requiring manufacturers to submit more detailed information to NHTSA in the event of a fatal crash.

The Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act “would require NHTSA make the information it receives from auto manufacturers publicly available in a searchable, user-friendly format so that consumers and independent safety experts can evaluate potential safety defects themselves,” according to a Markey news release.

The GM Hearings – Our Take

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill opened the second day of hearings into the General Motors ignition switch defect and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s response to the issue by forging the strongest ties yet between the revelations that GM had hidden the defect for years and the civil litigation system.

McCaskill repeatedly (along with other U.S. senators and representatives yesterday and today) acknowledged the public debt to Lance Cooper, the Marietta, Georgia lawyer who represents the family of Brooke Melton, the 29-year-old woman who died in 2010 when the ignition module of her 2005 Cobalt slipped into the accessory position as she drove along Highway 92 in Paulding County, Ga. Melton’s Cobalt skidded into another vehicle, and Melton died of her injuries in the crash. Cooper’s dogged pursuit of GM materials through the discovery process showed that GM knew about the problems for years before launching a recall that only covered some of the affected models.

The ensuing avalanche of press led to a larger recall, and a government probe, and the April hearings.

But before the crush began, Cooper formally requested that NHTSA open a Timeliness Query, based on everything he had learned. And, it’s a good thing that McCaskill gave Cooper some credit, because to this day, NHTSA has not acknowledged his letter in any way. Not a phone call, not an email, not a letter. The bubble.

GM and NHTSA’s "Magic Formula"

Tomorrow, the heads and NHTSA and GM will head into the House committee for a three-Bromo-seltzer morning on the topic of: What Did You Know and When Did You Know It?

We, at The Safety Record, are most interested in understanding why NHTSA declined to investigate the defective ignition modules in early model year Chevy Cobalts and other models, after two Special Crash Investigations, 29 complaints, four deaths and the considered opinion of Defects Assessment Division (DAD) Chief.

According to a briefing report prepared by Majority Staff of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, the decision point for the agency was the fall of 2007:

In September of that year, the DAD Chief “emailed other ODI officials and proposed an investigation of “frontal airbag nondeployment in the 2003-2006 Chevrolet Cobalt/Saturn Ion.” The Chief of the Defects Assessment Division went on to state that the “issue was promoted by a pattern of reported non-deployments in VOQ [Vehicle Owners’ Questionnaire] complaints that was first observed in early 2005. Since that time, [the Defects Assessment Division] has followed up on the complaints, enlisted the support of NCSA’s Special Crash Investigations (SCI) team, discussed the matter with GM, and received a related EWD Referral. Notwithstanding GM’s indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of non-deployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers.”

Two months later, an “ODI IE panel reviewed the proposal to open an investigation into non-deployment of airbags in 2003-2006 Cobalts and Ions. A PowerPoint presentation prepared by the DAD and dated November 17, 2007, states that its review was prompted by 29 Complaints, 4 fatal crashes, and 14 field reports. During a briefing with Committee staff, ODI officials explained that the panel did not identify any discernible trend and decided not to pursue a more formal investigation.”

The Safety Record has long observed that we can find no “discernible trend” in NHTSA’s investigation decisions. In a March 8, 2014 New York Times story on the GM debacle ODI Chief Frank Borris said that that calls are made by “really well-seasoned automotive engineers who leverage a lot of technology and lean on past precedent about when to open, when to close, and when to push for a recall. It’s no magic formula.”

Take out the word “magic,” and for once, we agree with Frank.

In February, Safety Research & Strategies submitted comments to NHTSA’s 2014-2018 Strategic Plan docket pointing out this perennial problem, well-documented in a series of Office of Inspector General reports going back to 2002:

- NHTSA uses an unstructured process for determining defects and inconsistent or nonexistent criteria for initiating defect investigations.

- NHTSA makes poor use of available data and refuses to consider information from sources outside the agency or the manufacturer.

- NHTSA focuses on defects that are easily and inexpensively remedied, frequently ignoring more complicated and dangerous defects.

That GM Loaner May Not be Safer

Last week, General Motors attempted to pour oil on its troubled waters with an offer of free loaner cars for consumers awaiting a fix for the wandering ignition defect that is linked to at least 13 deaths. But, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) says that a loaner may be no safer – as long as automobile dealers are permitted to put customers in vehicles that may be under recall, but unremedied.

“We are very concerned for customers who go to GM dealers expecting a safer loaner car and that might not be what they get,” says Rosemary Shahan, CARS president.

This issue has been simmering on the Congressional back-burner since last May, after a California jury awarded $15 million to the parents of two sisters who died in an Enterprise Rent-A-Car 2004 PT Cruiser on October 7, 2004. The driver of the truck they hit testified that he could see smoke pouring from the PT Cruiser’s engine compartment just before it veered into the southbound lanes of Highway 101 in Monterey County, crashing into his 18-wheeled Freightliner tractor trailer. A month earlier, Chrysler had recalled 439,000 2001-2004 PT Cruiser and the 2005 PT Cruiser Convertible for a power steering hose that could rub against the transaxle differential cover, eventually resulting in a steering fluid leak and an underhood fire. Despite the recall notice, Enterprise had rented the PT Cruiser that crashed to three other customers before the Houcks. On the day of the crash, the PT Cruiser was the only vehicle available and Enterprise employees offered it to Raechel and Jacqueline Houck as a free upgrade.

Automobile dealers are prohibited from selling a new recalled vehicle that has not yet had the remedy implemented, but there is no such prohibition against renting or loaning out a recalled vehicle that has not had the fix, or selling a used unremedied vehicle.

The Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2013 was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and supported by the car rental companies. The bill, S921, was filed in May and was unanimously passed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, but it has advanced no further. CARS is lobbying for the bill and a similar one in the California legislature. SB 686 prohibits dealers from loaning, renting, leasing or otherwise transferring ownership of recalled used vehicles to consumers. But in both cases, the auto dealers have demanded a carve-out for loaners, because, as lobbyists testified they “have no way to know” if a vehicle has been recalled.

“The dealers and the manufacturers are blocking it and can’t even get out of the Senate,” Shahan said. “They’ve testified that they don’t want to pay for the down time, because a recalled vehicle could be out for weeks. They don’t want to lose the revenue, they’d rather put their customers at risk.”

Don’t Settle, NHTSA

Yesterday, the agency sent General Motors an extraordinary 27-page Special Order compelling the automaker to answer 107 questions about an ignition defect in the 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalt and six other models that claimed at least 13 lives and injured at least 31.

Retired NHTSA senior enforcement lawyer Alan Kam said that he’d never seen anything like it.

We are encouraged by NHTSA’s aggressive and swift action, and we are hoping and wishing and praying for actual enforcement follow-through that benefits and protects consumers, rather than merely burnishes the agency’s image.

We all know – including GM – that a big, fat fine is in their future for failing to launch a recall within five days of discovering a defect, as Marietta, Ga. attorney Lance Cooper found out. Cooper obtained internal documents during the discovery phase of a lawsuit on behalf of the family of the late Brooke Melton, showing that GM engineers discovered in 2004 that the ignition of the 2005 Cobalt could wander from the run to off or accessory position while the vehicle is underway. 

GM Folds, Where's the Fine?

On the First Day, attorney Lance Cooper called GM out on its recall of the 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 for an ignition switch problem that, the automaker announced, was linked to six deaths.

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