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.

Graco’s Perception Problem

Leiana Marie Ramirez was three days shy of her second birthday, when she was burned alive, strapped in a Graco Nautilus child safety seat.

 On August 26, 2011, her mother, Samika Ramirez had been out running errands related to Leiana’ party – delivering cupcakes to her pre-school, shopping for Lieana’s birthday present. The pair was on the way home, southbound on Arroyo Seco Parkway in South Pasadena, when Samika felt her Nissan Altima swerve, and thinking she had a flat, regained control of her vehicle, stopped in the left-most lane and put on her flashers. The divided highway had no breakdown lane, just a narrow shoulder.

 Ramirez was about to call AAA, when another driver, who hadn’t noticed the stopped Altima, plowed into its rear end. The vehicle almost immediately caught fire. According to the police reports, Samika tried frantically to unbuckle her daughter, but could not release the harness. The flames engulfing her car were too intense, and onlookers pulled Samika Ramirez out of the car, while Leianna stayed behind. She witnessed her daughter’s death.

 More than a year later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would open an investigation – still pending – that would eventually result in a recall of the Graco Nautilus and 17 other models for buckles that were so difficult to unlatch that some consumers complained to NHTSA that they had to cut the belt webbing to get their children out of the seat. And, from the beginning, Graco would concede that it was “keenly aware of the issue.” Indeed, it had collected more than 6,100 complaints about it.

 But Graco insisted that the inability to extract a child from the car seat was merely “a consumer frustration and a consumer experience that Graco has been working to improve.” To this date, Graco has not acknowledged that this defect led to a horrific death – not in its responses to the agency’s investigative information requests; not in its Part 573 Defect and Noncompliance Report and not in its Early Warning Reports. The company paid a big fine to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2005 for a long history of failing to report injuries and deaths. Even now, with the initial recall expanded and under a Special Order to answer all questions truthfully, Graco comforts its customers on its website:

 Graco can assure you there have been no reported injuries as a result of the harness buckles used on Graco car seats. We want to stress that our car seats are safe and effective in restraining children.  And, the safest way to transport a child is always in a car seat.

 NHTSA declined to comment on Graco’s stance, via a statement to The Safety Record:

 “Although Graco has submitted a defect notice in response to NHTSA’s recall request, our investigation remains open.  As such, the agency cannot discuss or comment at this time.”

 Attorney Christine Spagnoli, who represents the Ramirez family, says that Graco’s failure to acknowledge Leiana’s death will negatively affect the efficacy of the recall”

 “To me the issue is this: by putting on their website that there are no reported claims and by telling that to NHTSA, They are trying to dissuade people from getting new buckles,” says Spagnoli of Greene, Broillet & Wheeler, LLP. “This is a safety issue, and by saying something false to the public, they’re trying to save money, at the expense of kids getting hurt.”

 The Investigation

 The Preliminary Evaluation into Graco buckles opened in October 2012 with 25 complaints reported to NHTSA via their Vehicle Owners Questionnaire database, containing hypotheticals that echoed the Ramirez incident, like this one, filed with the agency in September 2012:

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. 

Why Civil Litigation Matters to Safety: GM Edition

If you want to know why civil litigation matters to safety, take these links over to USA Today and read James Healey’s fine coverage of General Motor’s crappy, nine-years-too late 2005 Cobalt and Pontiac G5 recall, and attorney Lance Cooper’s request to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a Timeliness Query investigation. (6 Killed in GM Cars with Faulty Ignition Switch; Lawsuit: GM Knew of Cobalt Ignition Problem; and Lawyer Asks Feds to Explain Recall Timing)  

After settling a lawsuit in which a 29-year-old woman died in crash caused by a defect known within GM since 2004, the automaker announced that it would recall a subset of vehicles plagued by ignition switches that wander from the run to the accessory or off position. These shifts  create an emergency situation while the vehicle is underway, disabling the airbags while cutting off the engine power, power brakes and power steering. The defect, which GM engineers discovered in 2004, before they began selling the 2005 Cobalt, was the central issue in Melton v General Motors.

Brooke Melton, 29, died in 2010 when the ignition switch in 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; she died of her injuries in the crash.

The incident was initially attributed to Melton simply losing control of her car on a rainy night. But the Melton family sought the counsel of attorney Lance Cooper, after facing a legal claim from the driver in the other vehicle. Cooper, a veteran of motor vehicle defect litigation, saw something that many lawyers would have overlooked and filed suit against GM.  The records he pried out of GM’s hands after 18 months of requests for production and a court order compelling the automaker to produce what it knew about the defect, revealed a long, sorry history. GM engineers had discovered the ignition switch problem during the Cobalt’s production stage, but the company sold them anyway. GM began to receive complaints about the problem almost immediately, and tried to make them go away with an October 2005 TSB covering the 2005 Cobalt and with a later TSB involving later model years of the Cobalt, the Pontiac G5, along with 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR, the 2005-2006 Pontiac Pursuit in Canada; the 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice; 2003-2007 Saturn Ion; and 2007 Saturn Sky. This “fix” – an ignition key cover that changed the design from a slot to a key hole – did not solve the problem.

The Toyota Owners Left Holding the Bag

John Biello was not ready for the cruise control malfunction that sent his 2009 Tacoma careening down an exit ramp, then skidding into a rollover last June. But Tuesday, when he and his wife Diane appeared before the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Insurance Board of Appeals to fight an automatic rate increase mandated by state law, Biello was fully prepared to educate the hearing officer about Unintended Acceleration problems in Toyotas.

As the great tide of cash washes from Toyota into the pockets of the U.S. government, attorneys, research institutions and some death and injury victims to settle fines and claims without an admission that the automaker’s electronic throttle control system is defective, owners like John and Diane Biello represent those left to deal with Toyota’s mistakes on their own. The Rehoboth, Massachusetts couple had no counsel, just a compelling account and a binder of public documents showing that Toyota Unintended Acceleration problems continue today and that juries and technical experts recognize what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not: Toyota’s badly designed electronic architecture can cause UA.

“I knew that there had been this unintended acceleration problem. I had read about it a couple of years ago,” John Biello says. “But I thought it pretty much done. I thought the problem was fixed and I didn’t really think my vehicle was involved because I got no Unintended Acceleration recall notices.”

Burning Questions: Why Did NHTSA Let Chrysler Slide?

Last Friday, David Shepardson of the Detroit News announced for NHTSA what many knew was coming: the 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee and 2002 - 2007 Jeep Liberty rear-impact fuel-fed fires investigation is over. No recall. The ornamental trailer hitch will stand as a symbolic gesture of a remedy.

This one has all the hallmarks of what has become an Office of Defects Investigation classic: design defect too difficult/costly to correct? Check. Bogus, untested remedy? Check. Appearance of action? Check.

You could tell that NHTSA was real proud of its work by the timing of the disclosure: 5 p.m. on a Friday before a holiday weekend. Classic public relations bury-the-news-and-hope-nobody-notices move. Release the information, and head home for the holidays. Classic and classy!

“Words cannot describe how disappointed I am in NHTSA and US DOT in general,” says Jenelle Embrey, the fiery Linden, Virginia woman who teamed up with the Center for Auto Safety to advocate for a recall on the older model Jeeps with the fuel tank aft of the rear axle design. Embrey launched her own crusade after witnessing the deaths of 18-year-old Acoye Breckenridge and the driver Heather Lee Santor in an October 2012 crash. Embrey’s dad, Harry Hamilton, managed to save one occupant of Jeep Grand Cherokee before it exploded.

Honda’s Revenge Against the Pilot Owner Who Sparked a Recall

In the press, Carrie Carvalho was portrayed as a hero – an average consumer who successfully petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate inadvertent braking in Honda Pilots. In March, after NHTSA bumped up its investigation to an Engineering Analysis, Honda announced that it was recalling nearly 200,000 Pilot and Acura MDX and RL vehicles for a mis-manufactured bolt which could send incorrect signals to the electronic stability control system.

But file this story under: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Three years after the Arlington, Mass. woman first experienced her 2005 Honda Pilot braking to a hard stop on its own from 45 mph, her Pilot is parked in the driveway and her legal case is parked in the hands of attorneys, with no end in sight.

“This is absurd,” she says. “Basically, the fact that Honda is still reluctant to take responsibility is unacceptable.”

Carvalho and her attorney are now contemplating their next move, including filing a 93A Civil Complaint – so named for the Chapter in the Massachusetts state legal code outlawing “unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.”

Behind the headlines, Carvalho has struggled, yet persisted in the face of a dangerous defect that neither Honda nor the Newton, Mass. dealership, Honda Village, were willing to repair correctly and of insulting compensation offers. The history of the defect itself illustrates the ever-growing catalogue of electronic component failures that trigger unintended consequences, wresting vehicle control away from the driver without warning and the need for a functional safety requirement for automotive electronics.

NHTSA Chokes on Recall Rule

The NHTSA has published a Final Rule on Early Warning Reporting and recall requirements, and we are sorry to say that it misses the mark on a number of fronts. But – it certainly is a very traditional approach to auto safety. NHTSA’s most significant safety steps forward are almost exclusively at the behest of Congress, and the gaps in this bill reflect that Daddy-Didn’t-Make-Us-Do-It mind-set.

These amendments, weaker than they should have been, are the result of 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, (MAP-21, for short) MAP-21 is the first major highway funding authorization bill since the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible Transportation Equity Act – a Legacy for Users (SAFTEA-LU). The comprehensive bill, among other things, could have fixed some significant problems with recall process and made the system more useful for its intended audience – consumers. Instead, NHTSA nibbled at the edges, and, if history is any judge, it will be another decade at least, before the agency makes more substantive changes – or Congress intervenes.  

The New Requirements

NHTSA was considering satisfying the MAP-21 dictate to make recalls Internet-based and searchable by Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), by requiring manufacturers to submit the VIN ranges of recalled vehicles directly to the agency to augment its current consumer search interface, which allows users to look up recalls by vehicle make and model, or by the recall campaign number. Frequently, a recall may not cover all vehicles in a particular model or model year, but ones manufactured in specific plants or in specific date ranges. Instead, the agency decided to require each manufacturer of large volume light vehicle and motorcycle manufacturers to offer their own recall look-up websites, which includes a VIN field.

NHTSA’s “Tough” Stance on Ford Recall – Eight Years Too Late

Well, the agency’s done it again. No longer can reporters call a $17.3 million civil penalty against a manufacturer the “largest fine in agency history.” Nope, now it’s the new normal. This time it was Ford who got rapped with NHTSA’s multi-million dollar automaker swatter, over failing to recall 2001-2004 Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute vehicles to correct an earlier recall repair to the accelerator cable that actually exacerbated the original problem.

Did you follow that? If, not, don’t worry. We’re gonna lay it out in all of its glorious detail.

Like just about everything NHTSA does these days, the path to the fine follows a long roundabout route that reaches its crescendo in a high-profile death. In this case it was Saige Bloom, the 17-year-old driver of a 2002 Escape who died in an unintended acceleration crash in Payson, Arizona on January 27, 2012. Bloom was driving her new used car home, with her mother following in another car, after they purchased the Escape. Bloom lost control of the vehicle, which rolled over. Bloom died of her injuries in the hospital.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, which petitioned the agency to open a Recall Query after Bloom’s death, says that the monetary penalty didn’t go far enough.

“To me, if there was ever a case for a criminal penalty this was it. It meets the requirements of the TREAD act – there was a death,” Ditlow said “In fact, there have been at least three deaths. Who knows how many there are, in reality? There’s an 8-year gap between the first recall and the fine.”

But, as these things tend to go, there won’t be anything as shocking as a criminal prosecution, just a blip on the bottom line. Ford denied any responsibility in the settlement agreement. To quote:

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