Does NHTSA Protect the Public, or GM and UAW?

David FriedmanThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) faced some of its heaviest criticism to date last week on Capitol Hill. Hearings addressing the failings of the agency were headed by Senator Claire McCaskill and centered around NHTSA’s part in General Motors’ deadly ignition switch recall delay. The death toll (currently at 20) continues to rise as a result of GM and NHTSA allowing the dangerously defective vehicles to remain on the roads for about 10 years from when the problem was first recognized. While the criticism of NHTSA is well-deserved, it is past time for harsh words to be accompanied by an overhaul of the agency.

Senator McCaskill has stated that an overhaul is exactly what she intends to accomplish according to a NY Times report on the hearings. From that piece:

In an interview after the hearing, Ms. McCaskill vowed to continue working on legislation to overhaul the agency and make it more effective. With the overall highway funding deadline pushed back until May, that larger legislation would also be a “last resort” opportunity to include critical reforms of the agency, she said.

“This is really a time of crisis for auto safety, where Americans are wondering whether they’re adequately protected,” she said. “Something has to change, and will change.”

The hearings also rightfully pointed out the cozy relationship between NHTSA and the auto industry with McCaskill stating that the agency was, “more interested in singing ‘Kumbaya’ with the manufacturers than being a cop on the beat.” The Time‘s article stated that, “Lawmakers from both parties accused the agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of overlooking evidence that could have saved lives and of deferring to the auto industry rather than standing up to it.”

Not one NHTSA official has been disciplined or fired in the wake of the ignition switch fiasco, including acting Adminstrator David Friedman (in photo), a liberal activist who is apparently in the tank for GM and the United Auto Workers.

The GM deadly ignition switch recall delay is not the only example of NHTSA failing in its responsibility to keep American motorists safe. The agency stood by idly while GM ignored a steering defect for four years before the company bowed to pressure from NLPC to recall the vehicles with a known defect.

In the power steering recall delay case, both GM and NHTSA were well aware of the defect. In fact, GM had recalled some vehicles with the same exact defect four years prior to finally recalling the remaining vehicles in question! As is often the case with NHTSA, they had an investigation open for years, but did nothing about the problem. I gave details on the power steering problem back in March of this year.

One more example of NHTSA’s ineffectiveness is evidenced in another long-running investigation that sees no conclusion. That investigation is for GM vehicles with corroding brake lines. NHTSA has had the investigation ongoing since 2010 for GM vehicles that lose braking ability as a result of busted brake lines caused by rust. The model years under investigation are 1999 through 2003. Hundreds of newer complaints have come in since the 2010 investigation started, many for later model years than those under investigation. GM has refused to address the problem (despite Subaru recalling vehicles for the same issue) and NHTSA has not even expanded their investigation to include later model years.

I’m sure that NHTSA has failings outside of those involving GM; I can only imagine how many instances can be found with further investigation. Perhaps the crony relationship between the Obama Administration, GM and the United Auto Workers contributes to the lack of safety oversight. Yet another example of a GM safety issue being overlooked revolves around an anti-lock brake system (ABS) problem that NHTSA has been informed of.

Back in 2005, GM recalled certain vehicles for unintended ABS activation. The same corrosion problem affecting brake lines seems to be the cause of the ABS failure. Since the 2005 recall, many newer models have experienced the same ABS problem. Despite hundreds of complaints received by NHTSA, no action has been taken regarding later model years of vehicles experiencing the same failure as those models which were previously recalled.

The few instances of inaction by NHTSA mentioned above seem to be the tip of the iceberg. The GM ignition switch recall debacle was a wake up call that finally resulted in political pressure to be placed on the agency. A House Oversight Committee issued a report on NHTSA’s failings contributing to the deaths caused by the GM ignition switch recall delay, concluding:

The GM recall exposed troubling questions about manufacturers’ and regulators’ approach to vehicle safety. This report focuses on the latter. The Committee’s investigation revealed that NHTSA – the federal regulator responsible for motor vehicle safety – is an agency struggling to keep pace with the industry it is responsible for overseeing.

“Struggling to keep pace” is putting it mildly! Taxpayer money is being wasted on an agency that seems to do very little to enforce motor vehicle safety requirements. NHTSA’s ongoing inaction is an example of capture of a regulator by the special interests it is supposed to regulate. 

Criticism alone will do no good. The lives and safety of American motorists are at stake. It is time for Congress to act.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.