The GM ignition switch safety recall appears to have sent a chill down the spine of the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA). Why? Because GM personnel knew about the problem as early as 2004, but did not report it to the NHTSA until 2014. In addition, the NHTSA’s accident reporting structure did not pick up on the problem. Consequently, the problem lingered for 10 years, during which innocent victims were being killed and injured.
The switch problem caused certain GM cars to shut off while being driven when the ignition switch suddenly went from the “on” position to the “accessory” position. This caused the vehicle’s power steering and brakes to stop working and caused airbags not to deploy as people crashed due to a lack of vehicle control.
Because of the harm done by the faulty switches, the NHTSA was especially concerned that it and GM had failed to bring the problem to light sooner. As a result, the agency initiated a review of its own procedures as they played out in the GM case, the goal being to fix any weaknesses going forward.
The review noted that both GM and the NHTSA had fallen down on the job of ensuring safety of GM vehicles. It said that GM sometimes refused to provide data, or provided incomplete data regarding airbag non-deployment crashes, and that the NHTSA failed to follow up and force GM to provide the data.
The review also stated that both GM and the NHTSA personnel were not knowledgeable enough about the application of advanced airbag systems in GM vehicles. For example, personnel from both organizations failed to make a connection between the deployment of airbags and the stalling of the engine caused by the faulty ignition switch.
As a result of its review, the NHTSA implemented a number of remedial measures. Among the most significant was a change to its methods of holding manufacturers accountable by improving the collection of information and auditing them and their suppliers. Another measure was to improve the agency’s level of expertise in new technologies.
To help the NHTSA implement its new methods, the agency established a Safety Systems Team made up of experts in the field of transportation safety.
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