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.