Occupational Health & Safety

Congress, DOT Inspector General Eying Huge GM Recalls

General Motors CEO Mary Barra and David Friedman, acting NHTSA administrator, are scheduled to testify about the massive recalls April 1 at a House oversight subcommittee hearing.

General Motors expanded its recall because of faulty ignition switches by 824,000 more vehicles on March 28, with the company announcing it will replace the switch in all model years of its Chevrolet Cobalt, HHR, Pontiac G5, Solstice, Saturn Ion, and Saturn Sky in the United States because faulty switches may have been used to repair them. And the company announced another recall March 31, alerting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration it will recall more than 1.3 million vehicles in the United States that may experience a sudden loss of electric power steering assist. These two recalls now total more than 3.4 million vehicles.

The ignition switch problem can cause an affected vehicle's engine to shut off and prevent the front airbags from deploying. GM has acknowledged at least 12 deaths occurred in accidents related to the flaw.

Until a repair has been made, GM is urging owners to remove all items, including the key fob, from their key rings, leaving only the vehicle key. "We are taking no chances with safety," GM CEO Mary Barra said. "Trying to locate several thousand switches in a population of 2.2 million vehicles and distributed to thousands of retailers isn’t practical. Out of an abundance of caution, we are recalling the rest of the model years. We are going to provide our customers with the peace of mind they deserve and expect by getting the new switches into all the vehicles."

Barra will have the opportunity to stress that point, and to say much more, when she testifies April 1 at a 2 p.m. EDT hearing of the Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. The other witness at the hearing is David Friedman, acting NHTSA administrator, who can expect to be asked why the recall was not initiated long before. A memorandum prepared by the committee's majority staff lists a GM engineering inquiry that was opened in November 2004 about a complaint that a 2005 Cobalt "can be keyed off with knee while driving," and it says Delphi, the ignition switch supplier for the recalled vehicles, told committee staff that GM approved Delphi's Production Part Approval Process document in February 2002 even though sample testing of the ignition switch torque was below GM's original specifications.

The document says NHTSA investigated a fatal July 2005 crash involving a Cobalt and determined the car's airbags had not deployed and the vehicle's power mode status was in "Accessory" at the time of the crash – the same condition that has prompted the recall. NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation decided in 2007 and again in 2010 that the airbag non-deployment data on Cobalts and Ions showed no discernable trend, according to the committee timeline.

The committee on March 31 posted Friedman's and also Barra's prepared, written testimony. Friedman's comments question the timeliness of the GM recall. "Based on our review of NHTSA's actions concerning airbag non-deployment in the recently recalled GM vehicles, we know the agency examined the available information multiple times using consumer complaints, early warning data, special crash investigations, manufacturer information about how air bags function, and other tools, but did not find sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect or defect trend that would warrant opening a formal investigation. This was a difficult case pursued by experts in the field of screening, investigations, and technology involving airbags that are designed to deploy in some cases, but not in cases where they are not needed or would cause greater harm than good. GM had critical information that would have helped identify this defect. With that and other information in hand, we can look for lessons learned from this experience that may further improve our process," he writes. "GM first provided NHTSA a chronology of events on February 24, 2014. The information in GM's chronology raises serious questions as to the timeliness of GM's recall. As a result, on February 26, NHTSA opened its present investigation, a timeliness query. On March 4, to obtain more detailed information than GM provided in its recall notification letter, NHTSA issued a special order seeking answers and documents, submitted under oath, to questions relevant to how quickly GM acted on information about the defect. GM's response is due to NHTSA on April 3. NHTSA is a data driven organization and we will take whatever action is appropriate based on our findings, including issuing civil penalties of up to the statutory limit of $35 million."

On March 21, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asked DOT's inspector general, Calvin L. Scovel III, to begin an audit of whether NHTSA "acted in an expeditious and timely manner to identify and pursue the safety defects covered by the GM recalls and whether NHTSA had and currently has sufficient resources, processes and data available to it to fulfill its safety function with respect to this recall." Foxx wrote in his memo requesting the audit that he also directed NHTSA and DOT's Office of the General Council to conduct a joint, internal due diligence review of these questions.

GM is posting information about the recall at www.gmignitionupdate.com.

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