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No One At NHTSA Has Been Fired Over GM's Ignition Switch Fiasco. Should They Be?

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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx

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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx made an appearance at the National Press Club yesterday. According to Detroit News, he told the assembled crowd that no one at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been fired or even disciplined for failing to spot trouble signs at General Motors prior to the automaker's massive, headline-grabbing ignition switch recall.

The question is: should anyone be? To answer that, let's first consider the way that things went down at GM. 

  • For starters, we know that at least some GM employees were aware of ignition switch problems as early as 2001 -- well before most of the vehicles affected by recalls had even been built -- and that GM has admitted that it took far, far too long to respond.  
  • However, we also know that knowledge of the problem was not widespread at GM, and that upper management was almost certainly ignorant of it until just before the news broke in February. In fact, based on the 15 people that GM fired in the wake of its internal investigation, it seems that the only people who truly understood the gravity of the problem were a handful of engineers, middle managers, and perhaps one attorney that they may have consulted.

So, given how well GM staff hid the issue from their bosses, is it unreasonable to think that they might've hidden it equally well from NHTSA investigators, who received numerous consumer complaints about the automaker's dodgy ignition switches?

That, as people used to say, is the $64,000 question. Consider these facts:

  • NHTSA had at least two opportunities to uncover GM's ignition switch flaw and initiate a recall.
    • The first of those came in 2007, after at least four deaths had been linked to the problem. A NHTSA senior official asked for a full investigation, but his request was denied, even though the agency was (and still is) in the habit of launching probes even in cases when no fatalities have been linked to alleged flaws.
    • The second opportunity came in 2010, after three accidents had been linked to the problem. Again, for unspecified reasons, the agency declined to launch a full investigation.
  • On the other hand, of NHTSA's $800 million budget, just over $10 million -- 1.25 percent -- is earmarked for investigating the thousands upon thousands of consumer complaints received each year. 

Foxx insists that there are significant firewalls in place at NHTSA to protect agency workers from being influenced by automakers. If we assume that's true, we have to conclude that NHTSA staff were simply unable to spot the defect trend in GM vehicles -- possibly because they were pressed for time, or because they didn't have the tools (mental, mechanical, or otherwise) to help carry out the task. Or both.

The good news is that, after the Toyota/Lexus recall debacle of 2010, the agency was able to purchase new software to help connect important dots and identify defects early on. The bad news is that the agency probably isn't going to receive a substantial budget increase in the near future, so its relatively small team of 51 investigators aren't going to get a boost in bandwidth anytime soon.  

Foxx said that NHTSA has reviewed its records and found no fault in the way it handled consumer complaints about GM vehicles in 2007 and 2010. However, he also noted that he's asked for a review of those findings. We'll let you know what they discover, if anything. 

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