WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. auto safety authorities admitted Friday to having missed key clues that could have led them to take action on faulty GM ignition switches, which are blamed for more than 100 deaths.
In a new report into why it took more than a decade, until one year ago, to recall cars with the deadly ignitions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reiterated that GM itself had hidden some of the information needed to accurately assess the problem.
It also faulted itself for not understanding important aspects of airbag technology and the link to the ignitions. And it admitted that it had ignored ultimately accurate theories on why airbags were not deploying in accidents involving GM cars that would have allowed it to take action years earlier.
Referring to a police report on a fatal 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt crash in Wisconsin that raised the ignition-airbag link, the agency said: “While it is clear that NHTSA was aware of an airbag non-deployment issue, and actively sought a root cause, alternate findings presented by other sources were discounted or not fully investigated.”
More than 100 people died and many more were injured in accidents in which airbags did not deploy because the ignition switches in the cars could easily be jarred out of the “run” position, turning off the engine and cutting power to the airbags and to power steering even while the car continued to move.
GM knew of the problem with the ignitions as early as 2002, NHTSA said, but it was years before anyone clearly tied the problem to the non-deployment of airbags.
One problem, the agency said, is that GM and NHTSA officials themselves had not fully understood the link between the ignition and the airbags. The setup was “contrary to the expectations of NHTSA’s investigators.”
The NHTSA report said it had not held GM accountable for providing inadequate information on incidents in which airbags didn’t deploy, and that it “did not identify and follow up on trends in its own data sources and investigations,” in part because its investigators did not share all their information among themselves.
Since recalling millions of cars over the problem last year, GM has acknowledged hundreds of death and injury claims, and has begun making payouts to victims.
The automaker is still facing a Justice Department criminal investigation over whether it covered up the problem, and Congress has demanded both GM and NHTSA explain why it took so long to launch a recall.
“Our obligation to save lives and prevent injuries must include sober self-examination,” NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said in a statement. “And when we find weaknesses, we have to fix them.”
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015