Safety agency mishandled GM recall, House panel says

WASHINGTON — The government’s auto safety agency should have discovered General Motors’ faulty ignition switches seven years before the company recalled 2.6 million cars to fix the deadly problem, a House committee majority charged Tuesday in a new report.

The report by Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee raised serious questions about the agency’s ability to keep the public safe as cars become more complex.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration misunderstood how vehicles worked, lacked accountability and failed to share information, according to the report, which was issued the same day that a Senate panel led by Democrats is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter.

“It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn’t identify the warnings,” Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement. “NHTSA exists not just to process what the company finds, but to dig deeper. They failed.”

At least 19 people died in crashes caused by the faulty switches in GM small cars like the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion. The company admits knowing about the problem for at least a decade, but it didn’t recall the cars until February. The delays caused numerous crashes that resulted in deaths and injuries. Lawmakers have said they expect the death toll to rise to near 100.

NHTSA already has fined GM the maximum $35 million for failing to report information on the switches to the agency, but Upton said NHTSA was part of the problem. The committee, he said, will continue to look for solutions.“It is tragic that the evidence was staring NHTSA in the face and the agency didn’t identify the warnings,” Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said in a statement An agency spokeswoman said NHTSA was preparing a response to the House committee’s assertions.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s consumer protection subcommittee was holding a hearing later Tuesday on ways to improve the auto safety agency. Acting NHTSA Administrator David Friedman and officials from the auto industry, safety advocacy groups and a government watchdog office were slated to testify.

NHTSA received consumer complaints about the switches for years, but didn’t order a recall investigation. GM officials also knew for at least a decade that the switches — which can shut off while the vehicle is moving, disabling the air bags and other key systems like power steering and power brakes — were faulty and causing accidents.

The House committee said in its report that a Wisconsin state trooper sent a report to NHTSA in 2007 about a crash that killed two teenage girls. The air bags failed to inflate in the crash, and the trooper was able to link that to ignition switches that can slip out of the “run” position. The agency also commissioned two outside investigations that reached the same conclusion, yet no one at NHTSA connected the information and the agency never pushed for a recall.

The agency rejected a proposal to start an investigation, relying on a “generalized trend analysis” of consumer complaints that showed the GM cars didn’t stand out from comparable vehicles. NHTSA’s outdated perception of how air bag systems worked “contributed to the years of delay in identifying this defect,” the report stated.

The ignition switch problems forced GM to do a companywide safety investigation that triggered 65 recalls covering more than 29 million cars and trucks so far this year.

“The agency is not doing the job which it has the capacity to do, and people are at risk as result,” said auto safety advocate Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the Senate panel’s chairman, has introduced a bill that would eliminate the $35 million cap on the amount the safety agency can fine automakers like GM, and give prosecutors greater discretion to bring criminal charges for auto safety violations, including up to life in prison for violations resulting in death.

On Monday, attorney Kenneth Feinberg, a prominent compensation expert hired by GM, said he has received claims related to 125 deaths, and 19 of the deaths have been verified as related to the faulty switches. The rest are under review or awaiting documentation.

GM officials said for months that they knew of at least 13 deaths. The company has agreed to pay claims that Feinberg determines to be valid in exchange for claimants agreeing not to sue GM. Victims or their relatives have until Dec. 31 to file claims.

Krisher reported from Detroit.

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