Former NHTSA Head Addresses Failures by GM and Regulators
In an article published by the New York Times, Joan Claybrook, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), commented on failures by both General Motors and NHTSA in the delayed recall of 2.6 million GM vehicles equipped with faulty ignition switches.
Bulletins Sent in Place of Recall
In February, General Motors began a recall that would be expanded to include roughly 2.2 million vehicles in the Unites States alone. However, an analysis by the New York Times indicates that attempts to address the defect in a more discreet manner began years earlier.
During this time, the automaker distributed numerous bulletins to dealerships identifying serious safety issues involving defects in the electrical systems, airbags and power steering of now recalled GM vehicles, but never that ordered any kind of repairs be made.
While thousands of technical service bulletins are sent out by automakers every year, these are meant to address low-level problems such as issues with interior lights or air conditioning, not issues that could result in an increased risk of collision, injury or death.
If it is determined that a defect poses a safety issue, the automaker is required by law to inform NHTSA of the defect and initiate a recall which is then monitored by the safety agency.
GM Service Bulletins “Highly Inappropriate”
“There’s no question that service bulletins have been used where recalls should have been. It’s highly inappropriate.” – Joan Claybrook as published by the New York Times.
Though Claybrook acknowledged that she knows of several instances in which automakers attempted to issue service bulletins in place of a recall, she assured the Times that this is not routine, calling such methods “highly inappropriate.” Nonetheless, it is easy why these inappropriate actions are taken.
In the case of General Motors, the automaker estimated that it would cost $41.3 million to repair the ignition switches in the initial 778,000 Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles that were listed in their recall. According to experts, the service bulletins presented an option that would not only save the automaker money, but would also have less of an impact on the company’s reputation.
Unfortunately, this does not appear to be an isolated event for GM. According to Frank Borris, a top defects investigator for NHTSA, there have been at least four other instances in which regulators question GM’s use of service bulletins to address safety issues and pressed for recalls.
Further, while GM CEO Mary Barra continues portray such actions as being limited to the “old” pre-2009-bailout GM, one instance referenced by Borris involved 2013 Chevrolet Malibu vehicles recalled for airbag defects.
NHTSA Failed to Address Complaints
Claybrook acknowledged that NHTSA is somewhat responsible for not detecting GM’s service bulletin abuse, stating that the agency is “so grossly underfunded that it doesn’t have time to read them as they come in.”
As such, NHTSA has also been subjected to inquiries by Congress, with David Friedman, the acting head of the agency, being questioned by the House Energy Commerce Committee and a Senate sub-committee earlier this month.
Among the questions asked by members of Congress was why NHTSA had failed to subpoena documents relating to the defective ignition switches from GM.
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