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Examining the GM recall Scandal Part II: What the NHTSA knew

In our last post, we began a discussion about an investigation into the General Motors ignition-switch recall scandal. In recent months, both GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have conducted internal investigations into how information was handled or mishandled.

GM announced that it had fired 15 mid-level employees who were allegedly aware of the automotive defects but failed to take appropriate action. The NHTSA, on the other hand, has not disciplined or fired any employees. But what culpability does the NHTSA have in this scandal, if any?

According to news sources, there were two points at which the NHTSA could have intervened and initiated recall actions. These were in 2007 and in 2010. In 2007, the agency became aware that the ignition switch problem had been linked to at least four deaths. In 2010, the NHTSA learned that the same defect had been linked to three other car accidents. In both cases, full investigations never occurred.

The fact that such problems could be missed is distressing but understandable in light of the NHTSA’s limited resources. The agency employs only 51 investigators, and the team has a budget of just $10 million per year with which to investigate thousands of complaints from consumers. The $10 million represents just 1.25 percent of the NHTSA’s annual budget.

Did the NHTSA “drop the ball” in its handling of the GM ignition-switch debacle? In some respects, the answer is yes. But is GM far more culpable for missing important information and perhaps willfully covering up problems? That answer is obvious.

Hopefully, the GM scandal will convince federal legislators to expand the NHTSA’s budget and regulatory power. If we cannot depend on automakers to police themselves, we need a government agency with enough resources and authority to make sure that Americans stay safe behind the wheel.

Source: The Car Connection, "No One At NHTSA Has Been Fired Over GM's Ignition Switch Fiasco. Should They Be?" Richard Read, July 22, 2014 

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