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 process, as it stands today, allows NHTSA to request more information about fatal crashes, as part of a DI.  NHTSA does these fairly regularly. In the Wisconsin crash, NHTSA was on the phone to the Wisconsin State Police asking from more information, two days after the October 24 crash, even as the victims lay in the hospital in critical condition. NHTSA was interested only in the airbag non-deployment aspect of the crash.

But DIs are not among the investigations that NHTSA makes available in its publicly searchable database. You may be able to get the related documents via a Freedom of Information Act request, or a civil lawsuit – if the agency hasn’t granted the manufacturer blanket confidentiality. It often does when the manufacturers gives the information voluntarily. There was a time when it was routine for NHTSA to request such information under its statutory authority, making it subject to FOIA, with the usual exemptions for privacy and trade secrets.

The Markey/Blumenthal legislation, which would require at least the submission of initial claims and police reports, minus medical records, property damage estimates and damages-related documents, would make that choice moot. At the hearing, Foxx refused to commit to supporting the legislation, but merely said that he would look into it. Transparency was supposed to be a major element of the original EWR rulemaking, but manufacturers managed to whittle public access down to a nub of information.

In her turn at the mic, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill noted that the agency’s engineering and investigative staff was paltry compared to the task, and asked Foxx about the need for more staff in the Office of Defects Investigation. We’ve been down this road before. Here’s an exchange between Texas Rep. Michael Burgess and former NHTSA Administrator David Strickland from one of the several Toyota Unintended Acceleration hearings four years ago:  

               Mr. Burgess. Have you got enough funding to do what you

               need to do, because we, after all, have not done a budget this

               year. We are not going to do any appropriations until late in

               the year. Are you going to be able to pay for the things that

               you need to do to get this information?

              

               Mr. Strickland. We are, at the time we are properly

               resourced right now. If there is any resource issues that

               confront us in our work, we will definitely come back to the

               Congress and inform them.

              

               Mr. Burgess. Let the record show that NHTSA is awash in

               cash and needs no more money. I think that is what he just

               said.

              

               Mr. Strickland. I wouldn't say that, Mr. Burgess, but thank

               you for the implication.

 

Congress and NHTSA have a dialogue about the need to increase its investigative capacity and transparency in every performance of Safety Accountability Theater.

The Safety Record supports both – not talking about it; doing it. We’ve waged out own informational jihad, writing articles about NHTSA’s lack of transparency and filing Freedom of Information Act lawsuits in cases where the agency clearly did not look for or release all of the documents that did qualify for a FOIA exemption. We’ve been successful in four to date.

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