Did NHTSA Drag Its Feet on GM’s Deadly Recall Delay?

NHTSA logoThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is opening an investigation into General Motors’ response to an ignition-switch defect that has been linked to 13 deaths, prompting a recall of 1.6 million vehicles. As I have previously reported, the ignition-switch problem has been known for years. What took NHTSA so long?

NHTSA is an executive branch agency, part of the Transportation Department. According to its website, NHTSA “is dedicated to achieving the highest standards of excellence in motor vehicle and highway safety. It works daily [emphasis added] to help prevent crashes and their attendant costs, both human and financial.”

Five years ago, when Toyota delayed a recall for vehicles with unintended acceleration problems that allegedly cost some motorists their lives, NHTSA was a tiger. It eventually fined Toyota over $65 million for not recalling its vehicles sooner. TV networks (particularly business news networks) gave the story much air time, as well they should have. Congress got in on the act with hearings and the United Auto Workers (UAW) piled on, too. Of course, the UAW was GM second biggest shareholder, only behind the U.S. Government.

Does the double-standard result from GM’s political prominence? The auto bailout was portrayed as a great success in President Obama’s reelection campaign. UAW gets favored treatment from the current administration and came out in force to help with the President’s reelection bid.

GM’s latest actions are alleged to have resulted in the deaths of 13 people. Political favoritism and cronyism should not hinder a full investigation to bring justice for the victims. TV news networks should give the story the coverage it warrants, despite the amount of ad revenue they receive from GM.

When news of GM’s recall first hit (with excellent ongoing coverage by USA Today), I immediately sensed that the company knew of the problem for years. I was the first to report that here at NLPC and found multiple web topics from years ago discussing the issue, which centers on a defective ignition switch that caused vehicles to shut down along with airbag systems. What is also important to note is that “new” GM bore responsibility to recall the vehicles and now needs to be held accountable.

Media sources like USA Today and the NY Times have done a great job exposing the story which has finally led to an apology from GM. Initially, GM tried to get away with doing only a partial recall which would have left dangerous vehicles on the roads. In fact, GM’s deplorable response was to blame victims for speeding and driving while intoxicated. Only after the media reports escalated did GM act properly by recalling the rest of the vehicles and issuing its rare apology. That shows the importance of the media, which can act in the best interest of citizens by holding companies like GM accountable when they act in their own best interests and neglect the safety of others.

NHTSA also bears responsibility for assuring that dangerous vehicles are not allowed on American highways. Where have they been for the approximate 10 years that the defective GM vehicles were putting lives at risk? More importantly, what will it do now?

Members of Congress also need to put the safety of Americans ahead of their political aspirations. Fear of criticizing the powerful General Motors should not hinder a congressional investigation. What did GM and NHTSA know and when did they know it?

Kudos to the USA Today for doing a great job in exposing a deadly defect response by GM and pressuring the company to do the right thing. Shame on GM for not acting in an ethical manner without the outside catalyst of fear of bad press. All Americans should be aware that there is a danger when corporations like GM are allowed special treatment because of political connections and the line should finally be drawn. Politics should not prevent GM from being held accountable for the lost lives of the victims of its botched recall.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.